Yes! Caliban and the witch by Silvia Federici. This is most surely, a book. In my opinion this book is of primary importance for American leftists! Why:

1. The book describes a relatively unknown part of western European history. Not just the particulars of the witch-hunt to modern scholarship, but I mean the period from the 13ᵗʰ to 18ᵗʰ centuries to the common person. Specifically, it reclaims this period from the basic, dim narrative we're provided with - centuries of fiefdoms bumbling along on serf-power and superstition until they get their shit together in the Enlightenment and make capitalism happen. Instead it provides a history that jives with our knowledge of human needs and behaviors at the mass scale in the present day. Rather than being a natural next step from feudalism, capitalism was brutally imposed against hundreds of years of communal resistance. If you have not read on this subject, this book tends to upend another preconception about this period of history with each paragraph. In this way it is a great introduction to communist thought, as it reminds us that commun(al)ism in practice did not begin with Marx but has always been a foundation of human social life.

2. Federici shows the shortcomings of Marx's analysis without attacking or rejecting Marx. On the contrary Marx is still foundational here with "primitive accumulation" a central concept in the book. In this sense, readers who have little experience with Leftism are introduced to a more accurate definition of Marxism, as a living science that has grown largely from Marx's writings. More broadly, Federici unbinds the idea of communism from the communist projects of the 20th century.

3. Most importantly, of course, Federici shows how capitalism must necessarily oppress women to control the reproduction of labor-power. This goes deeper than "intersectionality" to reveal the co-evolution of capitalism with misogyny (and racism) and indeed capitalism's absolute reliance on these schisms to control the peasantry. Conversely, therefore, the effort toward communism can only be successful as a feminist movement.

4. Other (I didn't work hard on this preface)

In reference to tHE r H i z z o n E, recent trolling efforts about such "pro-feminist" activities as a "babe drive" are based on a valid seed of criticism of the honky man Left: that "inclusion" is often seen as a means to personal and organizational validation, and is not taken seriously as a call to action on anti-misogynist (and anti-racist) fronts. Rather, our effort should be to eradicate gender differences within our organizations while attempting to deepen our understanding of and participation in the feminist fight.

To what degree this is possible online is hard to say, but hopefully posting this book here can open up a new round of discussion (someone with access could help this thread out by pulling old quotes from a previous thread from a previous forum) mutually interesting to feminists and communists.

I have already cleaned up the OCR from this scan of the book. I have also reserved readcaliban.org, as a site to be included in a potential reading-resource-webring that includes our site and Read Settlers any other niche commie groups that start to lick our toes for sustenance. Due to my utter lack I have not figured out how to host stuff or "live on my own", but....give me time.

You can help out by
1. Getting good versions of the images for lazy me
2. Sitting here, in your assigned seat \_
3. I'll be posting a new section of the book, typically 10-20 pages at a time, every few days

BUY THIS BOOK It's $20 and it's great to have and share in the meat dimension

Edited by swampman ()

Caliban and the Witch
Silvia Federici


To the many witches I have met in the Women’s Movement, and to the other witches whose stories have accompanied me for more than twenty-five years, nevertheless leaving an inexhaustible desire to tell, to let people know, to make sure that they will not be forgotten.

To our brother Jonathan Cohen whose love, courage and uncompromising resistance to injustice have helped me not lose faith in the possibility of changing the world and in men’s ability to make the struggle for women's liberation their own.

To the people who have helped me to produce this volume. I thank George Caffentzis with whom I have discussed every aspect of this book; Mitchel Cohen for his excellent comments, his editing of parts of the manuscript, and his enthusiastic support for this project; Ousseina Alidou and Maria Sari for introducing me to the work of Maryse Condé; Ferruccio Gambino for making me aware of the existence of slavery in 16ᵗʰ- and 17ᵗʰ-century Italy; David Goldstein for the materials he has given me on the witches’ “pharmakopeia”; Conrad Herold, for contributing to my research on witch hunting in Peru; Massimo de Angelis, for giving me his writings on primitive accumulation and for the important debate on this topic which he organized in The Commoner; Willy Mutunga for the materials he has given me on the legal aspects of witchcraft in East Africa. I thank Michaela Brennan and Veena Viswanatha for reading the manuscript and giving me advice and support. I also thank Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Nicholas Faraclas, Leopolda Fortunati, Everet Green, Peter Linebaugh, Bene Madunagu, Maria Mies, Ariel Salleh, Hakim Bey. Their works have been a reference point for the perspective that shapes Caliban and the Witch, though they may not agree with all that I have written here.

Special thanks to Jim Fleming, Sue Ann Harkey, Ben Meyers and Erika Biddle, who have given many hours of their time to this book and, with their patience and assistance, have given me the possibility of finishing it, despite my endless procrastination. - New York, April 2004

Autonomedia POB 568 Williamsburgh Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211-0568 USA
www.autonomedia.org info@autonomedia.org Text anti-copyright @ 2004 Silvia Federici
This text may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes. Please inform the author and publisher at the address above of any such use.

Designed by Sue Ann Harkey
First edition, 2004. Third printing, 2009
ISBN 1-57027-059-7
Printed in the United States of America

Table of Contents Preface 7 Introduction 11 All the World Needs a Jolt 21 Social Movements and political Crisis in Medieval Europe The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women 61 Constructing "Difference" in the "Transition to Capitalism" The Great Caliban 133 The Struggle Against the Rebel Body The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe 163 Colonization and Christianization 219 Caliban and Witches in the New World Index 244 Image sources 271 Bibliography 272

(Woodcut of witches conjuring a shower of rain. In Ulrich Molitor, De Lamiies et Pythonicis Mulieribus (On Female Sorcerers and Soothsayers) (1489).)


Caliban and the Witch presents the main themes of a research project on women in the “transition” from feudalism to capitalism that I began in the mid-1970s, in collaboration with an Italian feminist, Leopoldina Fortunati. Its first results appeared in a book that we published in Italy in 1984: Il Grande Calibano. Storial del corpo social ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (Milano: Franco Angeli) {The Great Caliban. History of the Rebel Body in the First Phase of Capitalism}.

My interest in this research was originally motivated by the debates that accompanied the development of the Feminist Movement in the United States concerning the roots of women's “oppression,” and the political strategies which the movement should adopt in the struggle for women's liberation. At the time, the leading theoretical and political perspectives from which the reality of sexual discrimination was analyzed were those proposed by the two main branches of the women's movement: the Radical Feminists and the Socialist Feminists. In my view, however, neither provided a satisfactory explanation of the roots of the social and economic exploitation of women. I objected to the Radical Feminists because of their tendency to account for sexual discrimination and patriarchal rule on the basis of transhistorical cultural structures, presumably operating independently of relations of production and class. Socialist Feminists, by contrast, recognized that the history of women cannot be separated from the history of specific systems of exploitation and, in their analyses, gave priority to women as workers in capitalist society. But the limit of their position, in my understanding of it at the time, was that it failed to acknowledge the sphere of reproduction as a source of value-creation and exploitation, and thus traced the roots of the power differential between women and men to women’s exclusion from capitalist development - a stand which again compelled us to rely on cultural schemes to account for the survival of sexism within the universe of capitalist relations.

It was in this context that the idea of tracing the history of women in the transition from feudalism to capitalism took form. The thesis which inspired this research was first articulated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, as well as other activists in the Wages For Housework Movement, in a set of documents that in the 1970s were very controversial, but eventually reshaped the discourse on women, reproduction, and capitalism. The most influential among them were Mariarosa Dalla Costa's Women and the Subversion of the Community (1971), and Selma James’ Sex, Race and Class (1975).

Against the Marxist orthodoxy, which explained women’s “oppression” and subordination to men as a residuum of feudal relations, Dalla Costa and James argued that the exploitation of women has played a central function in the process of capitalist accumulation, insofar as women have been the producers and reproducers of the most essential capitalist commodity: labor-power. As Dalla Costa put it, women's unpaid labor in the home has been the pillar upon which the exploitation of the waged workers, “wage slavery,” has been built, and the secret of its productivity (1972: 31). Thus, the power differential between women and men in capitalist society cannot be attributed to the irrelevance of housework for capitalist accumulation - an irrelevance belied by the strict rules that have governed women's lives - nor to the survival of timeless cultural schemes. Rather, it should be interpreted as the effect of a social system of production that does not recognize the production and reproduction of the worker as a social-economic activity, and a source of capital accumulation, but mystifies it instead as a natural resource or a personal service, while profiting from the wageless condition of the labor involved.

By rooting the exploitation of women in capitalist society in the sexual division of labor and women's unpaid work, Dalla Costa and James showed the possibility of transcending the dichotomy between patriarchy and class, and gave patriarchy a specific historical content. They also opened the way for a reinterpretation of the history of capitalism and class struggle from a feminist viewpoint.

It was in this spirit that Leopoldina Fortunati and I began to study what can only be euphemistically described as the “transition to capitalism,” and began to search for a history that we had not been taught in school, but proved to be decisive for our education. This history not only offered a theoretical understanding of the genesis of housework in its main structural components: the separation of production from reproduction, the specifically capitalist use of the wage to command the labor of the unwaged, and the devaluation of women's social position with the advent of capitalism. It also provided a genealogy of the modern concepts of femininity and masculinity that challenged the postmodern assumption of an almost ontological predisposition in “Western Culture” to capture gender through binary oppositions. Sexual hierarchies, we found, are always at the service of a project of domination that can sustain itself only by dividing, on a continuously renewed basis, those it intends to rule.

The book that resulted from this research, Il Grande Calibano: storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (1984), was an attempt to rethink Marx's analysis of primitive accumulation from a feminist viewpoint. But in this process, the received Marxian categories proved inadequate. Among the casualties was the Marxian identification of capitalism with the advent of wage labor and the “free” laborer, which contributes to hide and naturalize the sphere of reproduction. Il Grande Calibano was also critical of Michel Foucault's theory of the body; as we argued, Foucault's analysis of tile power techniques and disciplines to which the body has been subjected has ignored the process of reproduction, has collapsed female and male histories into an undifferentiated whole, and has been so disinterested in the “disciplining” of women that it never mentions one of the most monstruous attacks on the body perpetrated in the modern era: the witch-hunt.

The main thesis in Il Grande Calibano was that in order to understand the history of women in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, we must analyze the changes that capitalism has introduced in the process of social reproduction and, especially, the reproduction of labor-power. Thus, the book examined the reorganization of housework, family life, child-raising, sexuality, male-female relations, and the relation between production and reproduction in 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century Europe. This analysis is reproduced in Caliban and the Witch; however, the scope of the present volume differs from that of Il Grande Calibano, as it responds to a different social context and to our growing knowledge of women's history.

Shortly after the publication of Il Grande Calibano, I left the United States and took a teaching position in Nigeria, where I remained for nearly three years. Before leaving. I had buried my papers in a cellar, not expecting that I should need them for some time. But the circumstances of my stay in Nigeria did not allow me to forget this work. The years between 1984 and 1986 were a turning point for Nigeria, as for most African countries. These were the years when, in response to the debt crisis, the Nigerian government engaged in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which eventually resulted in the adoption of a Structural Adjustment Program, the World Bank's universal recipe for economic recovery across the planet.

The declared purpose of the program was to make Nigeria competitive on the international market. But it was soon apparent that this involved a new round of primitive accumulation, and a rationalization of social reproduction aimed at destroying the last vestiges of communal property and community relations, and thereby impose more intense forms of labor exploitation. Thus, I saw unfolding under my eyes processes very similar to those that I had studied in preparation for Il Grande Calibano. Among them were the attack on communal lands, and a decisive intervention by the State (instigated by World Bank) in the reproduction of the work-force: to regulate procreation rates, and, in this case, reduce the size of a population that was deemed too demanding and indisciplined from the viewpoint of its prospected insertion in the global economy. Along with these policies, aptly named the “War Against Indiscipline,” I also witnessed the fueling of a misogynous campaign denouncing women’s vanity and excessive demands, and the development of a heated debate similar, in many respects, to the 17ᵗʰ century querelles des femmes, touching on every aspect of the reproduction of labor-power: the family (polygamous vs. monogamous, nuclear vs. extended), child-raising, women's work, male and female identity and relations.

In this context, my work on the transition took on a new meaning. In Nigeria I realized that the struggle against structural adjustment is part of a long struggle against land privatization and the “enclosure” not only of communal lands but also of social relations that stretches back to the origin of capitalism in 16ᵗʰ-century Europe and America. I also realized how limited is the victory that the capitalist work-discipline has won on this planet, and how many people still see their lives in ways radically antagonistic to the requirements of capitalist production. For the developers, the multinational agencies and foreign investors, this was and remains the problem with places like Nigeria. But for me it was a source of great strength, as it proved that, worldwide, formidable forces still contrast the imposition of a way of life conceived only in capitalist terms. The strength I gained was also due to my encounter with Women in Nigeria (WIN), the country's first feminist organization, which enabled me to better understand the struggles that Nigerian Women have been making to defend their resources and to refuse the new model of patriarchy imposed on them, now promoted by the World Bank.

By the end of 1986, the debt crisis reached the academic institutions and, no longer able to support myself, I left Nigeria, in body if not in spirit. But the thought of the attacks launched on the Nigerian people never left me. Thus, the desire to restudy “the transition to capitalism” has been with me since my return. I had read the Nigerian events through the prism of 16ᵗʰ-century Europe. In the United States, it was the Nigerian proletariat that brought me back to the struggles over the commons and the capitalist disciplining of women, in and out of Europe. Upon my return, I also began to teach in an interdisciplinary program for undergraduates where I confronted a different type of “enclosure”: the enclosure of knowledge, that is, the increasing loss, among the new generations, of the historical sense of our common past. This is why in Caliban and the Witch I reconstruct the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages and the struggles by which the European proletariat resisted the advent of capitalism. My goal in doing so is not only to make available to non-specialists the evidence on which my analysis relies, but to revive among younger generations the memory of a long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving this historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths.

Since Marx, studying the genesis of capitalism has been an obligatory step for activists and scholars convinced that the first task on humanity’s agenda is the construction of an alternative to capitalist society. Not surprisingly, every new revolutionary movement has returned to the “transition to capitalism,” bringing to it the perspectives of new social subjects and uncovering new grounds of exploitation and resistance.1 This volume is conceived within this tradition, but two considerations in particular have motivated this work.

First, there has been the desire to rethink the development of capitalism from a feminist viewpoint, while, at the same time, avoiding the limits of a “women’s history” separated from that of the male part of the working class. The title, Caliban and the Witch, inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, reflects this effort. In my interpretation, however, Caliban represents not only the anti-colonial rebel whose struggle still resonates in contemporary Caribbean literature, but is a symbol for the world proletariat and, more specifically, for the proletarian body as a terrain and instrument of resistance to the logic of capitalism. Most important, the figure of the witch, who in The Tempest is confined to a remote background, in this volume is placed at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.

The second motivation behind this volume has been the worldwide return, with the new global expansion of capitalist relations, of a set of phenomena usually associated with the genesis of capitalism. Among them are a new round of “enclosures” that have expropriated millions of agricultural producers from their land, and the mass pauperization and criminalization of workers, through a policy of mass incarceration recalling the “Great Confinement” described by Michel Foucault in his study of history of madness. We have also witnessed the worldwide development of new diasporic movements accompanied by the persecution of migrant workers, again reminiscent of the “Bloody Laws” that were introduced in 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century Europe to make “vagabonds” available for local exploitation. Most important for this book has been the intensification of violence against women, including, in some countries (e.g., South Africa and Brazil), the return of witch-hunting.

Why, after 500 years of capital’s rule, at the beginning of the third millennium, are workers on a mass scale still defined as paupers, witches, and outlaws? How are land expropriation and mass pauperization related to the continuing attack on women? And what do we learn about capitalist development, past and present, once we examine it through the vantage-point of a feminist perspective?

It is with these questions in mind that in this work I have revisited the “transition” from feudalism to capitalism from the viewpoint of women, the body, and primitive accumulation. Each of these concepts refers to a conceptual framework that is a reference point for this work: the Feminist, the Marxist, and the Foucauldian. Thus, I will begin my introduction with some observations on the relation of my analysis to these different perspectives.

“Primitive accumulation” is the term that Marx uses, in Capital Vol. 1, to characterize the historical process upon which the development of capitalist relations was premised. It is a useful term, for it provides a common denominator through which we can conceptualize the changes that the advent of capitalism produced in economic and social relations. But its importance lies, above all, in the fact that “primitive accumulation” is treated by Marx as a foundational process, revealing the structural conditions for the existence of capitalist society. This enables us to read the past as something which survives into the present, a consideration which is essential to my usage of the term in this work.

However, my analysis departs from Marx’s in two ways. Whereas Marx examines primitive accumulation from the viewpoint of the waged male proletariat and the development of commodity production, I examine it from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labor-power.2 Thus, my description of primitive accumulation includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation. They include (i) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the work-force; (ii) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men; (iii) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers. Most important, I have placed at the center of my analysis of primitive accumulation the witch-hunts of the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, arguing that the persecution of the witches, in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonization and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism.

My analysis also departs from Marx’s in its evaluation of the legacy and function of primitive accumulation. Though Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development - its history, he declared, “is written in the annals of humanity in characters of fire and blood” - there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation. He believed that it disposed of small-scale property, and that it increased (to a degree unmatched by any other economic system) the productive capacity of labor, thus creating the material conditions for the liberation of humanity from scarcity and necessity. He also assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labor would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws (Marx 1909 Vol. 1). In this, he was deeply mistaken. A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalist globalization, including the present one, demonstrating that the continuous expulsion of farmers from the land, war and plunder on a world scale, and the degradation of women are necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism in all times.

I should add that Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women. For this history shows that, even when men achieved a certain degree of formal freedom, women were always treated as socially inferior beings and were exploited in ways similar to slavery. “Women,” then, in the context of this volume, signifies not just a hidden history that needs to be made visible, but a particular form of exploitation and, therefore, a unique perspective from which to reconsider the history of capitalist relations.

This project is not new. From the beginning of the Feminist Movement women have revisited the “transition to capitalism” even though they have not always recognized it. For a while, the main framework that shaped women's history was a chronological one. The most common designation feminist historians have used to describe the transition period has been “early modern Europe,” which, depending on the author, could designate the 13ᵗʰ or the 17ᵗʰ century.

In the 1980s, however, a number of works appeared that took a more critical approach. Among them were Joan Kelly's essays on the Renaissance and the Querelles des femmes, Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (1980), Leopoldina Fortunati's L'Arcano della Riproduzione (1981) (now available in English, Fortunati 1995), Merry Wiesner's Working Women in Renaissance Germany (1986), and Maria Mies' Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986). To these works we must add the many monographs that over the last two decades have reconstructed women’s presence in the rural and urban economies of medieval and early modern Europe, and the vast literature and documentary work that has been produced on the witch-hunt and the lives of women in pre-colonial America and the Caribbean islands. Among the latter, I want to remember in particular Irene Silverblatt's The Moon, the Sun, and the Witches (1987), the first account on the witch-hunt in colonial Peru; and Hilary Beckles' Natural Rebels. A Social History of Barbados (1995) which, together with Barbara Bush's Slave Women in Caribbean Society: 1650-1838 (1990), is one of the major texts on the history of enslaved women in the Caribbean plantations.

What this scholarly production has confirmed is that to reconstruct the history of women or to look at history from a feminist viewpoint means to redefine in fundamental ways the accepted historical categories and to make visible hidden structures of domination and exploitation. Thus, Kelly’s essay, "Did Women have a Renaissance?" (1984) undermined the classical historical periodization that celebrates the Renaissance as an outstanding example of cultural achievement. Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (1980) challenged the belief in the socially progressive character of the scientific revolution, arguing that the advent of scientific rationalism produced a cultural shift from an organic to a mechanical paradigm that legitimized the exploitation of women and nature.

Especially important has been Maria Mies' Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986), now a classic work, that re-examines capitalist accumulation from a non-Eurocentric viewpoint, connecting the destiny of women in Europe to that of Europe's colonial subjects, and providing for a new understanding of women's place in capitalism and the globalization process.

Caliban and the Witch builds upon these works, as on the studies contained within Il Grande Calibano (a work I discuss in the Preface). However, its historical scope is broader, as the book connects the development of capitalism, on one side, to the social struggles and the reproduction crisis of the late feudal period and, on the other, to what Marx defines as the “formation of the proletariat.” In this process, the book addresses a number of historical and methodological questions that have been at the center of the debate on women's history and feminist theory.

The most important historical question addressed by the book is how to account for the execution of hundreds of thousands of “witches” at the beginning of the modern era, and how to explain why the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women. Feminist scholars have developed a framework that throws much light on this question. It is generally agreed that the witch-hunt aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch-hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism. But the specific historical circumstances under which the persecution of witches was unleashed, and the reasons why the rise of capitalism demanded a genocidal attack on women have not been investigated. This is the task I take on in Caliban and the Witch, as I begin to analyze the witch-hunt in the context of the demographic and economic crisis of the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, and the land and labor policies of the mercantilist era. My work here is only a sketch of the research that would be necessary to clarify the connections I have mentioned, and especially the relation between the witch-hunt and the contemporary development of a new sexual division of labor, confining women to reproductive work. It is sufficient, however, to demonstrate that the persecution of witches (like the slave trade and the enclosures) was a central aspect of the accumulation and formation of the modern proletariat, in Europe as well as in the “New World.”

There are other ways in which Caliban and the Witch speaks to “women’s history” and feminist theory. First, it confirms that “the transition to capitalism” is a test case for feminist theory, as the redefinition of productive and reproductive tasks and male-female relations that we find in this period, both realized with the maximum of violence and state intervention, leave no doubt concerning the constructed character of sexual roles in capitalist society. The analysis I propose also allows us to transcend the dichotomy between “gender” and “class.” If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations. From this viewpoint, the debates that have taken place among postmodern feminists concerning the need to dispose of “women” as a category of analysis, and define feminism purely in oppositional terms, have been misguided. To rephrase the point I already made: if “femininity” has been constituted in capitalist society as a work-function masking the production of the work-force under the cover of a biological destiny, then “women’s history” is “class history,” and the question that has to be asked is whether the sexual division of labor that has produced that particular concept has been transcended. If the answer is a negative one (as it must be when we consider the present organization of reproductive labor), then “women” is a legitimate category of analysis, and the activities associated with “reproduction” remain a crucial ground of struggle for women, as they were for the feminist movement of the 1970s which, on this basis, connected itself with the history of the witches.

A further question addressed by Caliban and the Witch is raised by the contrasting perspectives offered by the feminist and Foucauldian analyses of the body in their applications to an understanding of the history of capitalist development. From the beginning of the Women's Movement, feminist activists and theorists have seen the concept of the “body” as key to an understanding of the roots of male dominance and the construction of female social identity. Across ideological differences, the feminists have realized that a hierarchical ranking of human faculties and the identification of women with a degraded conception of corporeal reality has been instrumental, historically, to the consolidation of patriarchal power and the male exploitation of female labor. Thus, analyses of sexuality, procreation, and mothering have been at the center of feminist theory and women’s history. In particular, feminists have uncovered and denounced the strategies and the violence by means of which male-centered systems of exploitation have attempted to discipline and appropriate the female body, demonstrating that women’s bodies have been the main targets, the privileged sites, for the deployment of power-techniques and power-relations. Indeed, the many feminist studies which have been produced since the early 1970s on the policing of women’s reproductive function, the effects on women of rape, battering, and the imposition upon them of beauty as a condition for social acceptability, are a monumental contribution to the discourse on the body in our times, falsifying the perception common among academics which attributes its discovery to Michel Foucault.

Starting from an analysis of “body-politics” feminists have not only revolutionized the contemporary philosophical and political discourse, but may have also begun to revalorize the body. This has been a necessary step both to counter the negativity attached to the identification of femininity with corporeality, and to create a more holistic vision of what it means to be a human being.3 This valorization has taken various forms, ranging from the quest for non-dualistic forms of knowledge, to the attempt (with feminists who view sexual “difference” as a positive value) to develop a new type of language and “ the corporeal roots of human intelligence.”4 As Rosi Braidotti has pointed out, the body that is reclaimed is never to be understood as a biological given. Nevertheless, such slogans as “repossessing the body” or “speaking the body”5 have been criticized by post-structuralist, Foucauldian theorists, who reject as illusory any call for instinctual liberation. In turn, feminists have accused Foucault’s discourse on sexuality of being oblivious to sexual differentiation, while at the same time appropriating many of the insights developed by the Feminist Movement. This criticism is quite appropriate. Moreover, Foucault is so intrigued with the “productive” character of the power-techniques by which the body has been invested, that his analysis practically rules out any critique of power-relations. The nearly apologetic quality of Foucault's theory of the body is accentuated by the fact that it views the body as constituted by purely discursive practices, and is more interested in describing how power is deployed than in identifying its source. Thus, the Power by which the body is produced appears as a self-subsistent, metaphysical entity, ubiquitous, disconnected from social and economic relations, and as mysterious in its permutations as a godly Prime Mover.

Can an analysis of the transition to capitalism and primitive accumulation help us to go beyond these alternatives? I believe it can. With regard to the feminist approach, our first step should be to document the social and historic conditions under which the body has become a central element and the defining sphere of activity for the constitution of femininity. Along these lines, Caliban and the Witch shows that the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor. Thus, the importance which the body in all its aspects – maternity, childbirth, sexuality – has acquired in feminist theory and women's history has not been misplaced. Caliban and the Witch also confirms the feminist insight which refuses to identify the body with the sphere of the private and, in this vein, speaks of “body politics.” Further, it explains how the body can be for women both a source of identity and at the same time a prison, and why it is so important for feminists and, at the same time, so problematic to valorize it.

As for Foucault’s theory, the history of primitive accumulation offers many counter-examples to it, proving that it can be defended only at the price of outstanding historical omissions. The most obvious is the omission of the witch-hunt and the discourse of demonology in his analysis of the disciplining of the body. Undoubtedly, they would have inspired different conclusions had they been included. For both demonstrate the repressive character of the power that was unleashed against women, and the implausibility of the complicity and role-reversal that Foucault imagines to exist between victims and their persecutors in his description of the dynamic of micro-powers.

A study of the witch-hunt also challenges Foucault’s theory concerning the development of “bio-power,” stripping it of the mystery by which Foucault surrounds the emergence of this regime. Foucault registers the shift – presumably in 18ᵗʰ-century Europe – from a type of power built on the right to kill, to a different one exercised through the administration and promotion of life-forces, such as population growth; but he offers no clues as to its motivations. Yet, if we place this shift in the context of the rise of capitalism the puzzle vanishes, for the promotion of life-forces turns out to be nothing more than the result of a new concern with the accumulation and reproduction of labor-power. We can also see that the promotion of population growth by the state can go hand in hand with a massive destruction of life; for in many historical circumstances – witness the history of the slave trade – one is a condition for the other. Indeed, in a system where life is subordinated to the production of profit, the accumulation of labor-power can only be achieved with the maximum of violence so that, in Maria Mies’ words, violence itself becomes the most productive force.

In conclusion, what Foucault would have learned had he studied the witch-hunt, rather than focusing on the pastoral confession, in his History of Sexuality (1978), is that such history cannot be written from the viewpoint of a universal, abstract, asexual subject. Further, he would have recognized that torture and death can be placed at the service of “life” or, better, at the service of the production of labor-power, since the goal of capitalist society is to transform life into the capacity to work and “dead labor.”

From this viewpoint, primitive accumulation has been a universal process in every phase of capitalist development. Not accidentally, its original historical exemplar has sedimented strategies that, in different ways, have been re-Iaunched in the face of every major capitalist crisis, serving to cheapen the cost of labor and to hide the exploitation of women and colonial subjects.

This is what occurred in the 19ᵗʰ century, when the responses to the rise of socialism, the Paris Commune, and the accumulation crisis of 1873 were the “Scramble for Africa” and the simultaneous creation in Europe of the nuclear family, centered on the economic dependence of women to men – following the expulsion of women from the waged work-place. This is also what is happening today, as a new global expansion of the labor-market is attempting to set back the clock with respect to the anti-colonial struggle, and the struggles of other rebel subjects – students, feminists, blue collar workers – who, in the 1960s and 1970s, undermined the sexual and international division of labor.

It is not surprising, then, if large-scale violence and enslavement have been on the agenda, as they were in the period of the “transition,” with the difference that today the conquistadors are the officers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are still preaching the worth of a penny to the same populations which the dominant world powers have for centuries robbed and pauperized. Once again, much of the violence unleashed is directed against women, for in the age of the computer, the conquest of the female body is still a precondition for the accumulation of labor and wealth, as demonstrated by the institutional investment in the development of new reproductive technologies that, more than ever, reduce women to wombs.

Also the “feminization of poverty” that has accompanied the spread of globalization acquires a new significance when we recall that this was the first effect of the development of capitalism on the lives of women.

Indeed, the political lesson that we can learn from Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism. For capitalism must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations – the promise of freedom vs. the reality of widespread coercion, and the promise of prosperity vs. the reality of widespread penury – by denigrating the “nature” of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of African slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalization.

At the core of capitalism there is not only the symbiotic relation between waged-contractual labor and enslavement but, together with it, the dialectics of accumulation and destruction of labor-power, for which women have paid the highest cost, with their bodies, their work, their lives.

It is impossible therefore to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years.

The difference is that today the resistance to it has also achieved a global dimension.


1. The study of the transition to capitalism has a long history, which not accidentally coincides with that of the main political movements of this century. Marxist historians such as Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill revisited the “transition” in the 1940s and 1950s, in the wake of the debates generated by the consolidation of the Soviet Union, the rise of new socialist states in Europe and Asia, and what at the time appeared as an impending capitalist crisis. The “transition” was again revisited in the 1960s by Third-Worldist theorists (Samir Amin, André Gunder Frank), in the context of the contemporary debates over neo-colonialism, “underdevelopment,” and the “unequal exchange” between the “First” and the “Third World.”

2. These two realities, in my analysis, are closely connected, since in capitalism reproducing workers on a generational basis and regenerating daily their capacity to work has become "women's labor," though mystified, because of its un-waged condition, as a personal service and even a natural resource.

3. Not surprisingly, a valorization of the body has been present in nearly all the literature of “second wave” 20ᵗʰ-century feminism, as it has characterized the literature produced by the anti-colonial revolt and by the descendants of the enslaved Africans. On this ground, across great geographic and cultural boundaries, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) anticipates Aimé Cesaires Return to the Native Land (1938), when she mockingly scolds her female audience and, behind it, a broader female world, for not having managed to produce anything but children.

“Young women, I would say ... {y}ou have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or lead an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you.... What is your excuse? It is all very well for you to say, pointing to the streets and squares and forests of the globe swarming with black and white and coffee-colored inhabitants ... we have had other work on our hands. Without our doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert. We have borne and bred and washed and taught, perhaps to the age of six or seven years, the one thousand six hundred and twenty-three million human beings who are, according to statistics, at present in existence, and that, allowing that some had help, takes time.” (Woolf, 1929: 112)

This capacity to subvert the degraded image of femininity, which has been constructed through the identification of women with nature, matter, and corporeality, is the power of the feminist “discourse on the body,” that tries to unbury what male control of our corporeal reality has suffocated. It is an illusion, however, to conceive of women’s liberation as a “return to the body.” If the female body – as I argue in this work – is a signifier for a field of reproductive activities that have been appropriated by men and the state, and turned into an instrument for the production of labor-power (with all that this entails in terms of sexual rules and regulations, aesthetic canons, and punishments), then the body is the site of a fundamental alienation that can be overcome only with the end of the work-discipline which defines it.

This thesis holds true for men as well. Marx's portrait of the worker who feels at home only in his bodily functions already intuited this fact. Marx, however, never conveyed the magnitude of the attack to which the male body was subjected with the advent of capitalism. Ironically, like Michel Foucault, Marx too stressed the productivity of the power to which workers are subordinated – a productivity that becomes for him the condition for the workers’ future mastery of society. Marx did not see that the development of workers’ industrial powers was at the cost of the underdevelopment of their powers as social individuals, although he recognized that workers in capicalist society become so alienated from their labor, from their relations with others, and the products of their work as to become dominated by them as if by an alien force.

4. Braidotti (1991) 219. For a discussion of feminist thought on the body, see Ariel Salleh’s EcoFeminism as Politics (1997), especially Chapters 3 through 5; and Rosi Braidotti’s Patterns of Dissonance (1991) especially the section entitled “Repossessing the Body: A Timely Project” (pp. 219-224).

5. I am referring here to the project of ècriture feminine, a literary theory and movement that developed in France in the 1970s, among feminist students of Lacanian psychoanalysis, who were seeking to create a language expressing the specificity of the female body and female subjectivity (Braidotti, op. cit.).

Edited by swampman ()

I don't think I can tie this into some ongoing thoughts I've had with regard to neo-paganism but nonetheless this book seems interesting so I'm in.

Hell, it was suggested in my Goodreads.
reading caliban and the witch is probably the most positive side effect of my reading the zzone. it is excellent
Kool. I just reread this book last month
This book looks p interesting but there are some oddities here e.g.:

swampman posted:

Against the Marxist orthodoxy, which explained women’s “oppression” and subordination to men as a residuum of feudal relations

is the authour replying to some particular "marxist orthodoxy" at the time of writing, or to marxism as a whole? because it seems clear from Engels writings that Marx and Engels well understood that the "monogomous family" was a recent construction entirly part of the development of capitalism and individual property rights, rather than a "residium" of feudalism


swampman posted:

Though Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development - its history, he declared, “is written in the annals of humanity in characters of fire and blood” - there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation. He believed that it disposed of small-scale property, and that it increased (to a degree unmatched by any other economic system) the productive capacity of labor, thus creating the material conditions for the liberation of humanity from scarcity and necessity.


I should add that Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women.

What is the authour saying here with "Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women" - that capitalism has not paved the way for human liberation?


EmanuelaBrolandi posted:

Kool. I just reread this book last month

oh yeh? well i just read it for the third time and i can deadlift twice my bodyweight (5 years ago). who's the biggest man now in the Caliban and the Witch thread???

This is one of the best books, possibly better than Settlers even and equally important. If you haven't read this shit yet, get on it asap
full disclosure: i've never read C&W although it's been on my reading list for a while. also i think i've permanently injured my back from lifting. also i wanted to call EO a bitch but my respect for the material in the op prevented me from doing so.
[account deactivated]
I'm in. Also I obviously never made good on my promise to produce a better scan of this important book. However I did actually get a physical copy and

swampman posted:

You can help out by
1. Getting good versions of the images for lazy me

I am happy to scan the images, specifically, and contribute in this way, an achievable goal for me, the overpromiser. (I am also happy to look for the best reproductions of these images from other sources as needed)

Thank you for this thread.

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tears posted:

This book looks p interesting but there are some oddities here e.g.:

swampman posted:

Against the Marxist orthodoxy, which explained women’s “oppression” and subordination to men as a residuum of feudal relations

is the authour replying to some particular "marxist orthodoxy" at the time of writing, or to marxism as a whole?

In the context there it's a reference to an orthodoxy that existed in the early 70s at the start of the "wages for housework" movement. I guess in the absence of knowledgable feminists we should dig to find out more about, for example, the roots of dual-systems feminism

What is the authour saying here with "Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women" - that capitalism has not paved the way for human liberation?

A couple of times in the book Federici makes the argument that capitalism was not the logical progression from feudalism, that it did not represent the historical bridge between feudalism and communism. It was imposed via the deliberate, mass terrorizing and persecution of the peasantry, especially women, to force their participation in the new mode of production. Idk if that really answers your question.

I think Federici is saying that Capitalism did not pave the way for liberation

glomper_stomper posted:

it was common practice for english working men to sell their wives and children into a form of industrial bondage and collect an even split of the wages between themselves and gang leaders/bosses.

I'm trying not to post excerpts from up ahead, but we get into this in detail in "The Patriarchy of the Wage"; a parallel form of this, geared to fight the local's natural polygamy, was a law in Peru that said a husband and wife could never be apart.. she would accompany him into the silver and mercury mines. women's unwaged labor in both places is used to increase the productivity of waged labor.

Thanks swampman. I read this and will read it again

swampman posted:

A couple of times in the book Federici makes the argument that capitalism was not the logical progression from feudalism, that it did not represent the historical bridge between feudalism and communism. It was imposed via the deliberate, mass terrorizing and persecution of the peasantry, especially women, to force their participation in the new mode of production.

Beyond its primary narrative about gender, this is one of the best things about C&W (CAW? CAW) to me. I have always struggled with Marx's crypto-evolutionary idea of "stages of history". It strikes me as oddly unscientific - idealistic even - and it's notably turned out to be a significant point of departure in (to take the obvious example) Maoism, at least to the extent of saying the stages aren't universal, that capitalism might be skipped, etc.

But I think the problem is much deeper than just eurocentrism. The early stages are poorly researched caricatures, and as Federici shows, even the development of capitalism is not thoroughly understood. She also shows that the solution to this problem is to continue the application of historical materialism to history, and thereby develop a fuller and more nuanced understanding. I strongly suspect such an understanding would not support any universalist claims about "stages of history". If there was any doubt about this idea being a stain on Marxism generally, consider the breathless transposition of this concept to Marxism itself by proselytising Maoists, who speak of the "stages of development" of Marxism, with Maoism representing a higher stage.

I don't think reading Marx as saying that Capitalism was absolutely necessary before Socialism is really being honest, but rather taking a sensationalist or I guess exaggerated (?) view of his work or acting like his thoughts were static and didn't evolve with time. It's the same regardless of whether it's done to debase his theories or to make dogmatic nominally marxist assertions based on faulty history. Marx was just describing what he saw not saying he was composing the ultimate truth.

"The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development."

- Marx and Engels, Jan 21 1882

Edited by EmanuelaBrolandi ()


EmanuelaBrolandi posted:

I don't think reading Marx as saying that Capitalism was absolutely necessary before Socialism is really being honest, but rather taking a sensationalist or I guess exaggerated (?) view of his work or acting like his thoughts were static and didn't evolve with time. It's the same regardless of whether it's done to debase his theories or to make dogmatic nominally marxist assertions based on faulty history. Marx was just describing what he saw not saying he was composing the ultimate truth.

I basically agree but the issue isn't what Marx intended, but that Marxists generally have taken his observations and assumptions about development to be part of the science of Marxism, flaws and all. In fact, I think it IS honest to say that Marx made these observations as though he was describing something universal. The exaggeration, as you (correctly) describe it, is really a matter of emphasis. I raise the issue not as an attack on Marx, but a critique of Marxism as it currently exists.

I know/agree

That quote is good bc it shows how Marx and Engels understood that their theories would evolve and be contradicted but were also enthusiastic supporters of revolution. They supported the validity of Russian Communism instead of trying to defend their works and insisting that Russia had to go through Capitalism first (to relate back to what you're saying a lot of 'marxists' would probably insist they were right and call the Bolsheviks philistines). I think they based so much of their work around Western Europe in part because they knew Germany and England and thought they had the best chance of describing things in a way that would convey their ideas if they talked about the societies they knew best. I mean I also think, obviously, part of it was in fact them thinking that they were at the forefront of all history but that's more of a personal issue about them as duders rather than a problem with the basic premises of their work - and also why we need books like Caliban and the Witch because such works complete their framework.

Edited by EmanuelaBrolandi ()

Yeah, I think the problem exists as remnants of Hegelian teleology in the philosophical DNA of Marxism, not just in Marx's actual writings but in how people approach and read them. Especially when they don't actually read Marx and just go off of broad strokes and third hand leftovers like certain 20th/21st century writers, or internet forum posts.

Which is one of the things that makes Caliban and the Witch excellent as a Marxist work, it treats Marxism and Marxist historic analysis as a living practice that can evolve, not a calcified philosophical lineage that can only be critiqued and schismed.
Good, then we agree that Marxism is an ever evolving practice and I can safely call y'all my Marxist comrades until such a time as you disagree with one of my pet issues at which point I will accuse you of charlatanism and revisionism.

swampman posted:

What is the authour saying here with "Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women" - that capitalism has not paved the way for human liberation?

A couple of times in the book Federici makes the argument that capitalism was not the logical progression from feudalism, that it did not represent the historical bridge between feudalism and communism. It was imposed via the deliberate, mass terrorizing and persecution of the peasantry, especially women, to force their participation in the new mode of production. Idk if that really answers your question.

Yeah so this is what i was thinking the author was getting at. I will be interested to see how the author puts forward this case that capitalism is not a pre-requisit for the establishment of socialism as they seem to be saying: that capitalism as a whole is not nessesary, rather than just the the destruction of the remenants of communalism by capitalism are not nessesary, as Marx and Engels stated in brolandis quote.

having not read the book i will wait until i have read more of the book before saying more.

just on the subject of what Marx and Engels said on communalism and the possibility of building socialism based around the peasant commune, in the context of the narodniks and plekanovs writings against narodnism, E H Carr discusses this in Note C - Marx, Engels and the Peasant in The Bolshevik revolution 1917-23 (2)

where he quotes Engels:

p387, Engels posted:

None the less, it is incontestable that the possibility exists of transforming this communal form into a higher one, if only it is preserved until such time as the conditions are ripe for this transformation, and if it is capable of development in such a way that the peasants begin to work the land not separately but in common ; then the Russian peasants will pass over to this higher form, avoiding the intermediate stage of bourgeois small-scale ownership. But this can occur only in the event of the victorious proletarian revolution breaking out in western Europe before the final collapse of this common property a revolution which will assure to the Russian peasant the essential conditions for such a transfer, and in particular the material means needful to carry out the revolution in his whole system of agriculture which is necessarily bound up with it.


as far as i can remember the closest thing to "stages of history" that appears in capital is stuff about how the drive of capitalism to centralize, industrialize, expand and socialize labor sets up situations where all the working class needs to do is seize the factories and just keep producing once the capitalist class is gone
Let's Watch "The VVitch

Yes! The vvitch by Robert Eggers.
in Apartment 23"
I am breaking up each chapter into a few sections, and breaking up the endnotes in the way that you might expect me to do

All the World Needs a Jolt
Social Movements and Political Crisis in Medieval Europe

“All the world must suffer a big jolt. There will be such a game that the ungodly will be thrown off their seats, and the downtrodden will rise.” - Thomas Müntzer, Open Denial of the False Belief of the Godless World on the Testimony of the Gospel of Luke, Presented to Miserable and Pitiful Christendom in Memory of its Error, 1524

“There is no denying that, after centuries of struggle, exploitation does continue to exist. Only its form has changed. The surplus labor extracted here and there by the masters of today’s world is not smaller in proportion to the total amount of labor than the surplus extracted long ago. But the change in the conditions of exploitation is not in my view negligible. ...What is important is the history, the striving for liberation. ...” – Pierre Dockes, Medieval Slavery and Liberation, 1982


A history of women and reproduction in the “transition to capitalism” must begin with the struggles that the European medieval proletariat – small peasants, artisans, day laborers – waged against feudal power in all its forms. Only if we evoke these struggles, with their rich cargo of demands, social and political aspirations, and antagonistic practices, can we understand the role that women had in the crisis of feudalism, and why their power had to be destroyed for capitalism to develop, as it was by the three-century-long persecution of the witches. From the vantage point of this struggle, we can also see that capitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power, and truly gave “all the world a big jolt.” Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism “evolved” from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.

How the history of women intersects with that of capitalist development cannot be grasped, however, if we concern ourselves only with the classic terrains of class struggle – labor services, wage rates, rents and tithes – and ignore the new visions of social life and the transformation of gender relations which these conflicts produced. These were not negligible. It is in the course of the anti-feudal struggle that we find the first evidence in European history of a grassroots women’s movement opposed to the established order and contributing to the construction of alternative models of communal life. The struggle against feudal power also produced the first organized attempts to challenge the dominant sexual norms and establish more egalitarian relations between women and men. Combined with the refusal of bonded labor and commercial relations, these conscious forms of social transgression constructed a powerful alternative not only to feudalism but to the capitalist order by which feudalism was replaced, demonstrating that another world was possible, and urging us to question why it was not realized. This chapter searches for some answers to this question, while examining how the relation between women and men and the reproduction of labor-power were redefined in oppositon to feudal rule.

The social struggles of the Middle Ages must also be remembered because they wrote a new chapter in the history of liberation. At their best, they called for an egalitarian social order based upon the sharing of wealth and the refusal of hierarchies and authoritarian rule. These were to remain utopias, instead of the heavenly kingdom, whose advent was prophesied in the preaching of the heretics and millenarian movements, what issued from the demise of feudalism were disease, war, famine, and death – the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, as represented in Albrecht Dürer's famous print – true harbingers of the new capitalist era. Nevertheless, the attempts that the medieval proletariat made to “turn the world upside down” must be reckoned with; for despite their defeat, they put the feudal system into crisis and, in their time, they were “genuinely revolutionary,” as they could not have succeeded without “a radical reshaping of the social order” (Hilton, 1973: 223-4). Reading the “transition” from the viewpoint of the anti-feudal struggle of the Middle Ages also helps us to reconstruct the social dynamics that lay in the background of the English Enclosures and the conquest of the Americas, and above all unearth some of the reasons why in the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries the extermination of the “witches,” and the extension of state control over every aspect of reproduction, became the cornerstones of primitive accumulation.

Serfdom as a Class Relation

While the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages cast some light on the development of capitalist relations, their own political significance will remain hidden unless we frame them in the broader context of the history of serfdom, which was the domjnant class relation in feudal society and, until the 14ᵗʰ century, the focus of anti-feudal struggle.

(Farmers preparing the soil for sowing. Access to land was the foundation of the power of the serfs. English miniature, ca. 1340.)

Serfdom developed in Europe, between the 5ᵗʰ and 7ᵗʰ centuries A.D., in response to the breakdown of the slave system, on which the economy of imperial Rome had been built. It was the result of two related phenomena. By the 4ᵗʰ century, in the Roman territories and the new Germanic states, the landlords had to grant the slaves the right to have a plot of land and a family of their own, in order to stem their revolts, and prevent their flight to the “bush” where maroon communities were forming at the margins of the empire.1 At the same time, the landlords began to subjugate the free peasants, who, ruined by the expansion of slave-labor and later the Germanic invasions, turned to the lords for protection, although at the cost of their independence. Thus, while slavery was never completely abolished, a new class relation developed that homogenized the conditions of former slaves and free agricultural workers (Dockes 1982: 151), placing all the peasantry in a subordinate condition, so that for three centuries (from the 9ᵗʰ to the 11ᵗʰ), “peasant” (rusticus, villanus) would be synonymous with “serf” (servus) (Pirenne, 1956: 63).

As a work relation and a juridical status, serfdom was an enormous burden. The serfs were bonded to the landlords; their persons and possessions were their masters’ property and their lives were ruled in every respect by the law of the manor. Nevertheless, serfdom redefined the class relation in terms more favorable to the workers. Serfdom marked the end of gang-labor, of life in the ergastula,2 and a lessening of the atrocious punishments (the iron collars, the burnings, the crucifixions) on which slavery had relied. On the feudal estates, the serfs were subjected to the law of the lord, but their transgressions were judged on the basis of “customary” agreements and, in time, even of a peer-based jury system.

The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lords’ land (the demesne), the serf received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves, and pass down to their children “like a real inheritance, by simply paying a succession due” (Boissonnade 1927: 134). As Pierre Dockes points out in Medieval Slavery and Liberation (1982), this arrangement increased the serfs’ autonomy and improved their living conditions, as they could now dedicate more time to their reproduction and negotiate the extent of their obligations, instead of being treated like chattel subject to an unconditional rule. Most important, having the effective use and possession of a plot of land meant that the serfs could always support themselves and, even at the peak of their confrontations with the lords, they could not easily be forced to bend because of the fear of starvation. True, the lord could throw recalcitrant serfs off the land, but this was rarely done, given the difficulty of recruiting new laborers in a fairly closed economy and the collective nature of peasant struggles. This is why – as Marx noted – on the feudal manor, the exploitation of labor always depended on the direct use of force.3

The experience of self-reliance which the peasants gained from having access to land also had a political and ideological potential. In time, the serfs began to look at the land they occupied as their own, and to view as intolerable the restrictions that the aristocracy imposed on their freedom. “Land to the tiller” – the demand that has echoed through the 20ᵗʰ century, from the Mexican and Russian revolutions to the contemporary struggles against land privatization – is a battle cry which the medieval serfs would have certainly recognized as their own. But the strength of the “villeins” stemmed from the fact that access to land was a reality for them.

With the use of land also came the use of the “commons” – meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures – that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (wood for fuel, timber for building, fishponds, grazing grounds for animals) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation (Birrell 1987: 23). In Northern Italy, control over these resources even provided the basis for the development of communal self-administrations (Hilton 1973: 76). So important were the “commons” in the political economy and struggles of the medieval rural population that their memory still excites our imagination, projecting the vision of a world where goods can be shared and solidarity, rather than desire for self-aggrandizement, can be the substance of social relations.4

The medieval servile community fell short of these goals, and should not be idealized as an example of communalism. ln fact, its example reminds us that neither “communalism” nor “localism” can be a guarantee of egalitarian relations unless the community controls its means of subsistence and all its members have equal access to them. This was not the case with the serfs on the feudal manors. Despite the prevalence of collective forms of work and collective “contracts” with the landlords, and despite the local character of the peasant economy, the medieval village was not a community of equals. As established by a vast documentation coming from every country of Western Europe, there were many social differences within the peasantry that separated free peasants and those of servile status, rich and poor peasants, peasants with secure land tenure and landless laborers working for a wage on the lord's demesne, and women and men.5

Land was usually given to men and transmitted through the male lineage, though there were many cases of women who inherited it and managed it in their name.6 Women were also excluded from the offices to which the better-off male peasants were appointed, and, to all effects, they had a second-class status (Bennett 1988: 18-29; Shahar 1983). This perhaps is why their names are rarely mentioned in the manorial registers, except for those of the courts in which the serfs’ transgressions were recorded. Nevertheless, female serfs were less dependent on their male kin, less differentiated from them physically, socially, and psychologically, and were less subservient to men’s needs than “free” women were to be later in capitalist society.

Women’s dependence on men within the servile community was limited by the fact that over the authority of their husbands and fathers prevailed that of the lords, who claimed possession of the serfs’ persons and property, and tried to control every aspect of their lives, from work to marriage and sexual behavior.

It was the lord who commanded women’s work and social relations, deciding, for instance, whether a widow should remarry and who should be her spouse, in some areas even claiming the ius primae noctis – the right to sleep with a serf’s wife on her wedding night. The authority of male serfs over their female relatives was further limited by the fsct that the land was generally given to the family unit, and women not only worked on it but could dispose of the products of their labor, and did not have to depend on their husbands for support. The partnership of the wife in land possession was so well understood in England that “{w}hen a villein couple married it was common for the man to come and turn the land back to the lord, taking it again in both his name and that of his wife” (Hanawalt 1986b: 155).7 Furthermore, since work on the servile farm was organized on a subsistence basis, the sexual division of labor in it was less pronounced and less discriminating than in a capitalist farm. In the feudal village no social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the work-force; all work contributed to the family’s sustenance. Women worked in the fields, in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning, and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money-economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work.

If we also take into account that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing, spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were done in cooperation with other women, we then realize that the sexual divison of labor, far from being a source of isolation, was a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men, despite the fact that the Church preached women’s submission to men, and Canonic Law sanctified the husband’s right to beat his wife.

The position of women on the feudal manor cannot be treated, however, as if it were a static reality.8 For the power of women and their relations with men were, at all times, determined by the struggles which their communities fought against the landlords, and the changes that these struggles produced in the master-servant relation.

The Struggle on the Commons

By the end of the 14ᵗʰ century, the revolt of the peasantry against the landlords had becone endemic, massified, and frequently armed. However, the organizational strength that the peasants demonstrated in this period was the outcome of a long conflict that, more or less openly, ran through the Middle Ages.

Contrary to the schoolbook portrait of feudal society as a static world, in which each estate accepted its designated place in the social order, the picture that emerges from a study of the feudal manor is rather that of relentless class struggle.

As the records of the English manorial courts indicate, the medieval village was the theater of daily warfare (Hilton 1966: 154; Hilton, 1985: 158-59). At times, this reached moments of great tension, when the villagers killed the bailiff or attacked their lord’s castle. Most frequently, however, it consisted of an endless litigation, by which the serfs tried to limit the abuses of the lords, fix their “burdens,” and reduce the many tributes which they owed them in exchange for the use of the land (Bennett, 1967; Coulton, 1955: 35-91; Hanawalt 1986a: 32-35).

The main objective of the serfs was to keep hold of their surplus-labor and products and broaden the sphere of their economic and juridical rights. These two aspects of servile struggle were closely connected, as many obligations issued from the serfs’ legal status. Thus, in 13ᵗʰ century England, both on the lay and ecclesiastical estates, male peasants were frequently fined for claiming that they were not serfs but free men, a challenge that could result in a bitter litigation, pursued even by appeal to the royal court (Hanawalt 1986a: 31). Peasants were also fined for refusing to bake their bread at the oven of the lords, or grind their grain, or olives at their mills, which allowed them to avoid the onerous taxes that the lords imposed for the use of these facilities (Bennett 1967: 130-31; Dockes 1982: 176-79). However, the most important terrain of servile struggle was the work that, on certain days of the week, the serfs had to carry out on the land of the lords. These “labor services” were the burdens that most immediately affected the serfs’ lives and, through the 13ᵗʰ century, they were the central issue in the servile struggle for freedom.9

The serfs’ attitude towards the corveé, as labor services were also called, transpires through the entries in the books of the manorial courts, where the penalties imposed on the tenants were recorded. By the mid 13ᵗʰ century, the evidence speaks for a “massive withdrawal” of labor (Hilton 1985: 130-31).The tenants would neither go nor send their children to work on the land of the lords when summoned at harvest time,10 or they would go to the fields too late, so that the crops would spoil, or they worked sloppily, taking long breaks and generally maintaining an insubordinate attitude. Hence the lords’ need for constant and close supervision and vigilance, as evinced by this reconunendation:

Let the bailiff and the messor, be all the time with the ploughmen, to see that they do their work well and thoroughly, and at the end of the day see how much they have done. ...And because customary servants neglect their work it is necessary to guard against their fraud; further it is necessary that they are overseen often; and beside the bailiff must oversee all, that they work well and if they do not do well, let them be reproved (Bennett 1967: 113).

A similar situation is portrayed in Piers Plowman (c. 1362-70), William Langland's allegorical poem, where in one scene the laborers, who had been busy in the morning, passed the afternoon sitting and singing and, in another one, idle people flocked in at harvest time seeking “no deed to do, but to drink and to sleep” (Coulton 1955: 87).

Also the obligation to provide military services at wartime was strongly resisted. As H. S. Bennett reports, force was always needed to recruit in the English villages, and a medieval commander rarely managed to keep his men at war, for those who enlisted deserted at the first opportunity, after pocketing their pay. Exemplary are the pay-rolls of the Scottish campaign of the year 1300, which indicate that while 16,000 recruits had been ordered to enlist in June, by mid July only 7,600 could be mustered and this “was the crest of the wave ... by August little more than 3,000 remained.” As a result, increasingly the king had to rely on pardoned criminals and outlaws to bolster his army (Bennett 1967: 123-25).

Still, the most bitter struggles were those against the taxes and burdens that issued from the jurisdictional power of the nobility. These included the manomorta (a tax which the lord levied when a serf died), the mercheta (a tax on marriage that increased when a serf married someone from another manor), the heriot (an inheritance tax paid by the heir of a deceased serf for the right to gain entry to his holding, usually consisting of the best beast of the deceased), and, worst of all, the tallage, a sum of money arbitrarily decided, that the lords could exact at will. Last but not least was the tithe, a tenth of the peasant income, that was exacted by the clergy, but usually collected by the lords in the clergy’s name.

Together with the labor service, these taxes “against nature and freedom” were the most resented among the feudal dues, for not being compensated by any allotments of land or other benefits, they revealed all the arbitrariness of feudal power. Thus, they were strenuously resisted. Typical was the attitude of the serfs of the monks of Dunstable who, in 1299, declared that “they would rather go down to hell than be beaten in this matter of tallage,” and, “after much controversy,” they bought their freedom from it (Bennett, 1967: 139). Similarly, in 1280, the serfs of Hedon, a village of Yorkshire, let it be understood that, if the tallage was not abolished, they would rather go to live in the nearby towns of Revensered and Hull “which have good harbours growing daily, and no tallage” (ibid.: 141). These were no idle threats. The flight to the city or town11 was a constant component of servile struggle, so that, again and again, on some English manors, “men are reported to be fugitives, and dwelling in the neighboring towns; and although order is given that they be brought back, the town continues to shelter them. ...” (ibid.: 295-96).

To these forms of open confrontation we must add the manifold, invisible forms of resistance, for which subjugated peasants have been famous in all times and places: “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, pilfering, smuggling, poaching. ...” (Scott 1989: 5) These “everyday forms of resistance,” stubbornly carried on over the years, without which no adequate account of class relations is possible, were rife in the medieval village.

This may explain the meticulousness with which the servile burdens were specified in the manorial records:

For instance, {the manorial records} often do not say simply that a man must plow, sow and harrow one acre of the lord’s land. They say he must plow it with so many oxen as he has in his plow, harrow it with his own horse and sack. ...Services (too) were remembered in minute detail. …We must remember the cotmen of Elton who admitted that they were bound to stack the lord’s hay in his meadow and again in his barnyard, but maintained that they were not bound in custom to load it into carts to be carried from the first place to the second (Homans 1960: 272).

In some areas of Germany, where the dues included yearly donations of eggs and poultry, tests of fitness were devised, in order to prevent the serfs from handing down to the lords the worst among their chickens:

The hen (then) is placed in front of a fence or a gate; if frightened she has the strength to fly or scramble over, the bailiff must accept her, she is fit. A gosling, again, must be accepted if it is mature enough to pluck grass without loosing its balance and sitting down ignominiously (Coulton 1955: 74-75).

Such minute regulations testify to the difficulty of enforcing the medieval “social contract,” and the variety of battlefields available to a combative tenant or village. Servile duties and rights were regulated by “customs,” but their interpretation too was an object of much dispute. The “invention of traditions” was a common practice in the confrontation between landlords and peasants, as both would try to redefine them or forget them, until a time came, towards the middle of the 13ᵗʰ century, when the lords put them down in writing.

Liberty and Social Division

Politically, the first outcome of the servile struggles was the concession to many villages (particularly in Northern Italy and France) of “privileges” and “charters” that fixed the burdens and granted “an element of autonomy in the running of the village community” providing, at times, for true forms of local self-government. These charters stipulated the fines that were to be meted out by the manorial courts, and established rules for juridical proceedings, thus eliminating or reducing the possibility of arbitrary arrests and other abuses (Hilton 1973: 75).They also lightened the serfs’ duty to enlist as soldiers and abolished or fixed the tallage; often they granted the “liberty” to “hold stallage,” that is to sell goods at the local market and, more rarely, the right to alienate land. Between 1177 and 1350, in Loraine alone, 280 charters were conceded (ibid.: 83).

However, the most important resolution of the master-serf conflict was the commutation of labor services with money payments (money rents, money taxes) that placed the feudal relation on a more contractual basis. With this momentous development, serfdom practically ended, but, like many workers’ “victories” which only in part satisfy the original demands, commutation too co-opted the goals of the struggle, functioning as a means of social division and contributing to the disintegration of the feudal village.

To the well-to-do peasants who, possessing large tracts of land, could earn enough money to “buy their blood” and employ other laborers, commutation must have appeared as a great step on the road to economic and personal independence; for the lords lessened their control over their tenants when they no longer depended directly on their work. But the majority of poorer peasants – who possessed only a few acres of land barely sufficient for their survival – lost even the little they had. Compelled to pay their dues in money, they went into chronic debt, borrowing against future harvests, a process that eventually caused many to lose their land. As a result, by the 13ᵗʰ cenrury, when commutations spread throughout Western Europe, social divisions in the rural areas deepened, and part of the peasantry underwent a process of proletarianization. As Bronislaw Geremek writes:

Thirteenth-century documents contain increasing amounts of information about “landless” peasants who manage to eke out a living on the margins of village life by tending to flocks. ...One finds increasing numbers of “gardeners,” landless or almost landless peasants who earned their living by hiring out their services. ... In Southern France the “brassiers” lived entirely by “selling” the strength of their arms (bras) and hiring themselves out to richer peasants or landed gentry. From the beginning of the fourteenth century the tax registers show a marked increase in the number of impoverished peasants, who appear in these documents as “indigents,” “poor men” or even “beggards” (Geremek 1994: 56).12

The commutation to money-rent had two other negative consequences. First, it made it more difficult for the producers to measure their exploitation, because as soon as the labor-services were commuted into money payments, the peasants could no longer differentiate between the work that they did for themselves and that which they did for the landlords. Commutation also made it possible for the now-free tenants to employ and exploit other workers, so that, “in a further development,” it promoted “the growth of independent peasant property,” turning “the old self-employing possessors of the land” into a capitalist tenant (Marx 1909: Vol. III, 924 ff).

The monetization of economic life, then, did not benefit all people, contrary to what is claimed by supporters of the market economy, who welcome it as the creation of a new “common” replacing land-bondage and introducing in social life the criteria of objectivity, rationality, and even personal freedom (Simmel 1900). With the spread of monetary relations, values certainly changed, even among the clergy, who began to reconsider the Aristotelian doctrine of the “sterility of money” (Kaye 1998) and, not coincidentally, to revise its views concerning the redeeming quality of charity to the poor. But their effects were destructive and divisive. Money and the market began to split the peasantry by transforming income differences into class differences, and by producing a mass of poor people who could survive only on the basis of periodic donations (Geremek 1994: 56-62). To the growing influence of money we must also attribute the systematic attack to which Jews were subjected, starting in the 12ᵗʰ century, and the steady deterioration of their legal and social status in the same period. There is, in fact, a revealing correlation between the displacement of the Jews by Christian competitors, as moneylenders to Kings, popes and the higher clergy, and the new discriminatory rules (e.g., the wearing of distinctive clothing) that were adopted by the clergy against them, as well as their expulsion from England and France. Degraded by the Church, further separated by the Christian population, and forced to confine their moneylending (one of the few occupations available to them) to the village level, the Jews became an easy target for indebted peasants, who often vented on them their anger against the rich (Barber 1992: 76).

(Female masons constructing a city wall. French, 15th century.)

Women, too, in all classes, were most negatively affected by the increasing commercialization of life, for their access to property and income was further reduced by it. In the Italian commercial towns, women lost their right to inherit a third of their husbands’ property (the tertia). In the rural areas, they were further excluded from land possession, especially when single or widowed. As a result, by the 13ᵗʰ century, they were leading the movement away from the country, being the most numerous among the rural immigrants to the towns (Hilton 1985: 212), and by the 15ᵗʰ century, women formed a large percentage of the population of the cities. Here, most of them lived in poor conditions, holding low-paid jobs as maids, hucksters, retail traders (often fined for lack of a license), spinsters, members of the lower guilds, and prostitutes.13 However, living in the urban centers, among the most combative part of the medieval population, gave them a new social autonomy. City laws did not free women; few could afford to buy the “city freedom,” as the privileges connected with city life were called. But in the city, women’s subordination to male tutelage was reduced, as they could now live alone, or with their children as heads of families, or could form new communities, often sharing their dwellings with other women. While usually the poorest members of urban society, in time women gained access to many occupations that later would be considered male jobs. In the medieval towns, women worked as smiths, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, hat-makers, ale-brewers, wool-carders, and retailers (Shahar 1983: 189-200; King 1991: 64-67). “In Frankfurt, there were approximately 200 occupations in which women participated between 1300 and 1500” (Williams and Echols 2000: 53). In England, seventy-two out of eighty-five guilds included women among their members. Some guilds, including silk-making, were dominated by them; in others, female employment was as high as that of men.14 By the 14ᵗʰ century, women were also becoming schoolteachers as well as doctors and surgeons, and were beginning to compete with university-trained men, gaining at times a high reputation. Sixteen female doctors – among them several Jewish women specialized in surgery or eye therapy – were hired in the 14ᵗʰ century by the municipality of Frankfurt which, like other city administrations, offered its population a system of public health-care. Female doctors, as well as midwives or sage femmes, were dominant in obstetrics, either in the pay of city governments or supporting themselves with the compensation they received from their patients. After the Caesarian cut was introduced in the 13ᵗʰ century, female obstetrics were the only ones who practiced it (Opitz 1996: 370-71).

As women gained more autonomy, their presence in social life began to be recorded more frequently: in the sermons of the priests who scolded their indiscipline (Casagrande 1978); in the records of the tribunals where they went to denounce those who abused them (S. Cohn 1981); in the city ordinances regulating prostitution (Henriques 1966); among the thousands of non-combatants who followed the armies (Hacker 1981); and above all, in the new popular movements, especially that of the heretics.

We will see later the role that women played in the heretic movements. Here suffice it to say that, in response to the new female independence, we see the beginning of a misogynous backlash most evident in the satires of the fabliaux, where we find the first traces of what historians have defined as “the struggle for the breeches.”


1. The best example of a maroon society was the Bacaude who took over Gaul around the year 300 A.D. (Dockes 1982: 87). Their story is worth remembering. These were free peasants and slaves, who, exasperated by the hardships they suffered due to the skirmishes between the contenders to Rome's imperial throne, wandered off, armed with farm implements and stolen horses, in roving bands (hence their name: “band of fighters”) (Randers-Pehrson 1983: 26). Townspeople joined them and they formed self-governing communities, where they struck coins, with “Hope” written on their face, elected leaders, and administered justice. Defeated in the open field by Maximilian, the colleague of the emperor Diocletian, they turned to “guerrilla” warfare, to resurface, in full force in the 5ᵗʰ century, when they became the target of repeated military actions. In 407 A.D., they were the protagonists of a “ferocious insurrection.” The emperor Constantine defeated them in battie in Armorica (Brittany) (ibid.: 124). Here “rebellious slaves and peasants {had} created an autonomous ‘state’ organization, expelling the Roman officials, expropriating the landowners, reducing the slave holders to slavery, and reorganizing a judicial system and an army” (Dockes 1982: 87). Despite the many attempts made to repress them, the Bacaude were never completely defeated. The Roman emperors had to engage tribes of ‘barbarian’ invaders to subdue them. Constantine recalled the Visigoths from Spain and gave them generous donations of land in Gaul, hoping they would bring the Bacaude under control. Even the Huns were recruited to hunt them down (Renders-Pehrson 1983: 189). But we find the Bacaude again fighting with the Visigoths and Alans against the advancing Attila.

2. The ergastula were the dwelling of the slaves in the Roman villas. They were “subterranean prisons” in which the slaves slept in chains; they had windows so high (in the description of a contemporary landowner) that the slaves could not reach them (Dockes 1982: 69). They “were ... found almost everywhere,” in the regions the Romans conquered “where the slaves far outnumbered the free men” (ibid.: 208). The name ergastolo is still used in the Italian criminal justice vocabulary; it means “life sentence.”

3. This is what Marx writes in Capital, Vol. III, in comparing the serf economy with the slave and the capitalist economies. “To what extent the laborer, the self-sustaining serf, can here secure for himself a surplus above his indispensable necessities of life ... depends, other circumstances remaining unchanged, upon the proportion in which his labor time is divided into labor time for himself and forced labor time for his feudal lord. ...Under such conditions the surplus labor cannot be filched from {the serfs} by any economic measures, but must be forced from them by other measures, whatever may be the form assumed by them” (Marx 1909, Vol. III: 917-18).

4. For a discussion of the importance of the commons and common rights in England, see Joan Thirsk (1964), Jean Birrell (1987), and J.M. Neeson (1993). The ecological and eco-feminist movements have given the commons a new political significance. For an eco-feminist perspective on the importance of the commons in the economy of women’s lives, see Vandana Shiva (1989).

5. For a discussion of social stratification among the European peasantry see R. Hilton (1985: 116-17, 141-51) and J.Z. Titow (1969: 56-59). Of special importance is the distinction between personal freedom and tenurial freedom. The former meant that a peasant was not a serf, though s/he may still be bound to provide labor services. The latter meant that a peasant held land that was not “burdened” by servile obligations. In practice, the two tended to coincide, but this began to change after the commutation when free peasants, to expand their holdings, began to acquire lands that carried servile burdens. Thus, “We do find peasants of free personal status (liberi) holding villein land and we do find villeins (villani, nativi) holding freehold land, though both these occurrences are rare and both were frowned upon” (Titow 1969: 56-57).

6. Barbara Hanawalt’s examination of the wills from Kibworth (England) in the 15ᵗʰ century shows that “men favored mature sons in 41 percent of their wills, while they left to the wife alone or the wife with a son the estate in 29 percent of the cases” (Hanawalt 1986b: 155).

7. Hanawalt sees the medieval marital relationshjp among peasants as a “partnership.” “Land transactions in manorial courts indicate a strong practice of mutual responsibility and decision making. ...Husband and wife also appear in purchasing or leasing pieces of land either for themselves or for their children” (Hanawalt 1986b: 16). For women's contribution to agricultural labor and control over their surplus produce also see Shahar (1983: 239-42). For women’s extralegal contributions to their households, see B. Hanawalt (1986b: 12). In England, “illegal gleaning was the most common way for a woman to get extra grain for her family” (ibid.).

8. This is the limit of some of the otherwise excellent studies produced, in recent years, on women in the Middle Ages, by a new generation of feminist historians. Understandably, the difficulty in presenting a synthetic view of a field whose empirical contours are still being reconstructed has led to a preference for descriptive analyses focussing on the main classifications of women’s social life: “the mother,” “the worker,” “women in the rural areas,” “women in the cities,” often treated as if abstracted from social and economic change and social struggle.

9. As J.Z. Titow writes in the case of the English bonded peasants: “It is not difficuIt to see why the personal aspect of villeinage would be overshadowed by the problem of labour services in the minds of the peasants. ...Disabilities arising out of unfree status would come into operation only sporadically. ...Not so with the labour services, particularly week-work, which obliged a man to work for his landlord so many days a week, every week, in addition to rendering other occasional services” (Titow 1969: 59).

10. “{T}ake the first few pages of the Abbots Langley rolls: men were fined for not coming to the harvest, or for not producing a sufficient number of men; they came late and when they did come performed the work badly or in an idle fashion. Sometimes not one but a whole group failed to appear and so left the lord’s crop ungarnered. Others even when they came made themselves very unpleasant” (Bennett 1967: 112).

11. The distinction between “town” and “city” is not always clear. For our purposes the city is a population center with a royal charter, an episcopal see and a market, whereas a town is a population center (usually smaller than a city) with a regular market.

12. The following is a statistical picture of rural poverty in 13ᵗʰ-century Picardy: indigents and beggars, 13%; owners of small parcels of land, so unstable economically that a bad harvest is a threat to their survival, 33%; peasants with more land but without drought animals, 36%; wealthy farmers 19% (Geremek 1994: 57). In England, in 1280, peasants with less than three acres of land – not enough to feed a family – represented 46% of the peasantry (ibid.).

13. A silk spinners’ song gives a graphic picture of the poverty in which female unskilled laborers lived in the towns:

Always spinning sheets of silk
We shall never be better dressed
But always naked and poor,
And always suffering hunger and thirst (Geremek 1994: 65)

In French municipal archives, spinners and other female wage workers were associated with prostitutes, possibly because they lived alone and had no family structure behind them. In the towns, women suffered not only poverty but loss of kin, which left them vulnerable to abuse (Hughes 1975: 21; Geremek 1994: 65-66; Otis 1985: 18-20; Hilton 1985: 212-13).

14. For an analysis of women in the medieval guilds, see Maryanne Kowaleski and Judith M. Bennett (1989); David Herlihy (1995); and Williams and Echols (2000).

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The Millenarian and the Heretic Movements

It was the growing landless proletariat which emerged in the wake of commutation that was the protagonist (in the 12ᵗʰ and 13ᵗʰ centuries) of the millenarian movements, in which we find, beside impoverished peasants, all the wretched of feudal society: prostitutes, defrocked priests, urban and rural day laborers (N. Cohn 1970). The traces of the millenarians’ brief apparition on the historical scene are scanty, and they tell us a story of short-lived revolts, and of a peasantry brutalized by poverty and by the clergy’s inflammatory preaching that accompanied the launching of the Crusades. The significance of their rebellion, however, is that it inaugurated a new type of struggle, already projected beyond the confines of the manor and stimulated by aspirations to total change. Not surprisingly, the rise of millenarianism was accompanied by the spread of prophecies and apocalyptic visions announcing the end of the world and the imminence of the Last Judgment, “not as visions of a more or less distant future to be awaited, but as impending events in which many now living could take active part” (Hilton 1973: 223).

A typical example of millenarianism was the movement sparked by the appearance of the Pseudo Baldwin in Flanders in 1224-25. The man, a hermit, had claimed to be the popular Baldwin IX who had been killed in Constantinople in 1204. This could not be proven, but his promise of a new world provoked a civil war in which the Flemish textile workers became his most ardent supporters (Nicholas 1992: 155). These poor people (weavers, fullers) closed ranks around him, presumably convinced that he was going to give them silver and gold and full social reform (Volpe 1922: 298-9). Similar to this movement were those of the Pastoreaux (shepherds) – peasants and urban workers who swept through Northern France around 1251, burning and pillaging the houses of the rich, demanding a betterment of their condition15 – and the movement of the Flagellants that, starting from Umbria (Italy), spread in several countries in 1260, the date when, according to the prophecy of the abbot Joachim da Flora, the world was supposed to end (Russell 1972a: 137).

It was not the millenarian movement, however, but popular heresy that best expressed the search by the medieval proletariat for a concrete alternative to feudal relations and its resistance to the growing money-economy.

Heresy and millenarianism are often treated as one subject, but while a precise distinction cannot be drawn, there are significant differences between the two movements.

(A procession of flagellants during the Black Death.)

The millenarian movements were spontaneous, without an organizational structure or program. Usually a specific event or a charismatic individual spurred them on, as soon as they were met by force they collapsed. By contrast, the heretic movement was a conscious attempt to create a new society. The main heretical sects had a social program that also reinterpreted the religious tradition, and they were well-organized from the viewpoint of their reproduction, the dissemination of their ideas, and even their self-defense. Not surprisingly, they had a long duration, despite the extreme persecution to which they were subjected, and they played a crucial role in the anti-feudal struggle.

Today, little is known about the many heretic sects (Cathars, Waldenses, The Poor of Lyon, Spirituals, Apostolics) that for more than three centuries flourished among the “lower classes” in Italy, France, the Flanders, and Germany, in what undoubtedly was the most important opposition movement of the Middle Ages (Werner 1974; Lambert 1977). This is largely due to the ferocity with which they were persecuted by the Church, which spared no effort to erase every trace of their doctrines. Crusades – like the one moved against the Albigensians16 – were called against the heretics, as they were called to liberate the Holy Land from the “infidels.” By the thousands, heretics were burned at the stake, and to eradicate their presence the Pope created one of the most perverse institutions ever recorded in the history of state repression: the Holy Inquisition (Vauchez 1990: 162-70).17

Nevertheless, as Charles H. Lea (among others) has shown, in his monumental history of the persecution of heresy, even on the basis of the limited records available to us, we can form an impressive picture of their activities and creeds and the role of heretical resistance in the anti-feudal struggle (Lea 1888).

Although influenced by Eastern religions brought to Europe by merchants and crusaders, popular heresy was less a deviation from the orthodox doctrine than a protest movement, aspiring to a radical democratization of social life.18 Heresy was the equivalent of “liberation theology” for the medieval proletariat. It gave a frame to peoples’ demands for spiritual renewal and social justice, challenging both the Church and secular authority by appeal to a higher truth. It denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and it disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the first time in the Middle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms.

The heretic movement also provided an alternative community structure that had an international dimension, enabling the members of the sects to lead a more autonomous life, and to benefit from a wide support network made of contacts, schools, and safe-houses upon which they could rely for help and inspiration in times of need. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the heretic movement was the first “proletarian international” – such was the reach of the sects (particularly the Cathars and Waldenses) and the links they established among themselves with the help of commercial fairs, pilgrimages, and the constant border-crossing of refugees generated by the persecution.

At the root of popular heresy was the belief that god no longer spoke through the clergy, because of its greed, corruption and scandalous behavior. Thus the two major sects presented themselves as the “true churches.” However, the heretics’ challenge was primarily a political one, since to challenge the Church was to confront at once the ideological pillar of feudal power, the biggest landowner in Europe, and one of the institutions most responsible for the daily exploitation of the peasantry. By the 11ᵗʰ century, the Church had become a despotic power that used its alleged divine investiture to govern with an iron fist and fill its coffers by endless means of extortion. Selling absolutions, indulgences and religious offices, calling the faithful to church only to preach to them the sanctity of the tithes, and making of all sacraments a market, were common practices from the pope to the village priest, so much so that the corruption of the clergy became proverbial throughout Christianity. Things degenerated to the point that the clergy would not bury the dead, baptize or grant absolution from sin unless it received some compensation. Even the communion became an occasion for a bargain, and “{i}f an unjust demand was resisted the recalcitrant was excommunicated, and then had to pay for reconciliation in addition to the original sum” (Lea 1961: 11).

In this context, the propagation of the heretical doctrines not only channeled the contempt that people felt for the clergy; it gave them confidence in their views and instigated their resistance to clerical exploitation. Taking the lead from the New Testament, the heretics taught that Christ had no property, and that if the Church wanted to regain its spiritual power it should divest itself from all its possessions. They also taught that the sacraments were not valid when administered by sinful priests, that the exterior forms of worship – buildings, images, symbols – should be discarded because only inner belief mattered. They also exhorted people not to pay the tithes, and denied the existence of Purgatory, whose invention had been for the clergy a source of lucre through paid masses and the sales of indulgences.

In turn, the Church used the charge of heresy to attack every form of social and political insubordination. In 1377, when the cloth workers in Ypres (Flanders) took arms against their employers, they were not only hanged as rebels but were burned by the Inquisition as heretics (N. Cohn 1970: 105). There are also records of female weavers being threatened with excommunication for not having delivered promptly the product of their work to the merchants or not having properly done their work (Volpe 1971: 31). In 1234, to punish his peasant tenants who refused to pay the tithes, the Bishop of Bremen called a crusade against them “as though they were heretics” (Lambert 1992: 98). But heretics were persecuted also by the secular authorities, from the Emperor to the urban patricians, who realized that the heretic appeal to the “true religion” had subversive implications and questioned the foundations of their power.

Heresy was as much a critique of social hierarchies and economic exploitation as it was a denunciation of clerical corruption. As Gioacchino Volpe points out, the rejection of all forms of authority and a strong anti-commercial sentiment were common elements among the sects. Many heretics shared the ideal of apostolic poverty19 and the desire to return to the simple communal life that had characterized the primitive church. Some, like the Poor of Lyon and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, lived on donated alms. Others supported themselves by manual labor.20 Still others experimented with “communism,” like the early Taborites in Bohemia, for whom the establishment of equality and communal ownership were as important as religious reform.21 Of the Waldenses too an Inquisitor reported that “they avoid all forms of commerce to avoid lies, frauds and oaths,” and he described them as walking barefoot, clad in woolen garments, owning nothing and, like apostles, holding all things in common (Lambert 1992: 64). The social content of heresy, however, is best expressed in the words of John Ball, the intellectual leader of the English Peasant Rising of 1381, who denounced that “we are made in the image of God, but we are treated like beasts,” and added, “Nothing will go well in England ... as long as there will be gentlemen and villeins” (Dobson 1983: 371).22

(Peasants hang a monk who has sold indulgences. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1525.)

The most influential among the heretical sects, the Cathars, also stand out as unique in the history of European social movements because of their abhorrence for war (including the Crusades), their condemnation of capital punishment (which provoked the Church’s first explicit pronouncement in support of the death penalty)23 and their tolerance for other religions. Southern France, their stronghold before the crusade against the Albigensians, “was a safe haven for Jews when anti-semitism in Europe was mounting; {here} a fusion of Cathar and Jewish thought produced the Cabbala, the tradition of Jewish mysticism” (Spencer 1995b: 171). The Cathars also rejected marriage and procreation and were strict vegetarians, both because they refused to kill animals and because they wished to avoid any food, like eggs and meats, resulting from sexual generation.

This negative attitude towards natality has been attributed to the influence exerted on the Cathars by Eastern dualist sects like the Paulicians - a sect of iconoclasts who rejected procreation as the act by which the soul is entrapped in the material world (Erbstosser 1984: 13-14) – and, above all, the Bogomils, who proselytized in the 10th century among the peasantry of the Balkans. A popular movement “born amidst peasants whose physical misery made conscious of the wickedness of things” (Spencer 1995b: 15), the Bogomils preached that the visible world is the work of the devil (for in the World of God the good would be the first), and they refused to have children not to bring new slaves into this “land of tribulations,” as life on earth was called in one of their tracts (Wakefield and Evans 1991: 457).

The influence of the Bogomils on the Cathars is well-established,24 and it is likely that the Cathars’ avoidance of marriage and procreation stemmed from a similar refusal of a life “degraded to mere survival” (Vaneigem 1998: 72), rather than from a “death-wish” or from contempt for life. This is suggested by the fact that the Cathars’ anti-natalism was not associated with a degraded conception of women and sexuality, as it is often the case with philosophies that despise life and the body. Women had an important place in the sects. As for the Cathars’ attitude toward sexuality, it seems that while the “perfected” abstained from intercourse, the other members were not expected to practice sexual abstinence, and some scorned the importance which the Church assigned to chastity, arguing that it implied an overvaluation of the body. Some heretics attributed a mystical value to the sexual act, even treating it like a sacrament (Christeria), and preached that practicing sex, rather than abstaining from it, was the best means to achieve a state of innocence. Thus, ironically, heretics were persecuted both as extreme ascetics and as libertines.

The sexual creeds of the Cathars were obviously a sophisticated elaboration of themes developed through the encounter with Eastern heretical religions, but the popularity they enjoyed and the influence they exercised on other heresies also speak of a wider experiential reality rooted in the conditions of marriage and reproduction in the Middle Ages.

We know that in medieval society, due to the limited availability of land and the protectionist restrictions which the guilds placed on entrance into the crafts, neither for the peasants nor for the artisans was it possible or desirable to have many children, and, indeed, efforts were made by peasant and artisan communities to control the number of children born among them. The most common method used to achieve this goal was the postponement of marriage, an event that, even among Orthodox Christians, came at a late age (if at all), the rule being “no land, no marriage” (Homans 1960: 37-39). A large number of young people, therefore, had to practice sexual abstinence or defy the Church’s ban on sex outside of wedlock, and we can imagine that the heretical rejection of procreation must have found some resonance among them. In other words, it is conceivable that in the sexual and reproductive cocles of the heretics we may actually see the traces of a medieval attempt at birth control. This would explain why, when population growth became a major social concern, at a time of severe demographic crisis and labor shortage in the late 14ᵗʰ century, heresy became associated with reproductive crimes, especially “sodomy,” infanticide, and abortion. This is not to suggest that the heretics’ reproductive doctrines had a decisive demographic impact; but rather, that for at least two centuries, a political climate was created in Italy, France, and Germany, whereby any form of contraception (including “sodomy,” i.e. anal sex) came to be associated with heresy. The threat which the sexual doctrines of the heretics posed for the orthodoxy must also be viewed in the context of the efforts which the Church made to establish its control over marriage and sexuality, which enabled it to place everyone – from the Emperor to the poorest peasant – under its scrutiny and disciplinary rule.

The Politicization of Sexuality

As Mary Condren has pointed out in The Serpent and the Goddess (1989), a study of the penetration of Christianity into Celtic Ireland, the Church’s attempt to regulate sexual behavior had a long history in Europe. From a very early period (after Christianity became a state religion in the 4ᵗʰ century), the clergy recognized the power that sexual desire gave women over men, and persistently tried to exorcise it by identifying holiness with avoidance of women and sex. Expelling women from any moment of the liturgy and from the administration of the sacraments; trying to usurp women’s life-giving, magical powers by adopting a feminine dress; and making sexuality an object of shame – all these were the means by which a patriarchal caste tried to break the power of women and erotic attraction. In this process, “sexuality was invested with a new significance. ... {It} became a subject for confession, where the minutest details of one’s most intimate bodily functions became a topic for discussion” and where “the different aspects of sex were split apart into thought, word, intention, involuntary urges, and actual deeds of sex to form a science of sexuality” (Condren 1989: 86-87). A privileged site for the reconstruction of the Church’s sexual canons are the Penitentials, the handbooks that, starting from the 7ᵗʰ century, were issued as practical guides for the confessors. In the first volume of his History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault stresses the role that these handbooks played in the production of sex as discourse and of a more polymorphous conception of sexuality in the 17ᵗʰ century. But the Penitentials were already instrumental to the production of a new sexual discourse in the Middle Ages. These works demonstrate that the Church attempted to impose a true sexual catechism, minutely prescribing the positions permitted during intercourse (actually only one was allowed), the days on which sex could be practiced, with whom it was permissible, and with whom forbidden.

(Punishment for adultery. The lovers are guided through the street tied to each other. From a 1296 manuscript from Toulouse, France.)

This sexual supervision escalated in the 12ᵗʰ century when the Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 launched a new crusade against the common practice of clerical marriage and concubinage,25 and declared marriage a sacrament, whose vows no power on earth could dissolve. At this time, the limitations imposed by the Penitentials on the sexual act were also reiterated.26 Then, forty years later, with the III Lateran Council of 1179, the Church intensified its attack on “sodomy,” targeting at once gay people and non-procreative sex (Boswell 1981: 277-86), and for the first time it condemned homosexuality (“the incontinence which is against nature”) (Spencer 1995a: 114).

With the adoption of this repressive legislation sexuality was completely politicized. We do not have yet the morbid obsession with which the Catholic Church later approached sexual matters. But already by the 12ᵗʰ century we see the Church not only peeping into the bedroom of its flock, but making of sexuality a state matter. The unorthodox sexual choices of the heretics must also be seen, then, as an anti-authoritarian stand, an attempt the heretics made to wrench their bodies from the grip of the clergy. A clear example of this anti-clerical rebellion was the rise, in the 13ᵗʰ century, of new pantheist sects, like the Amalricians and the Brethren of the Free Spirit who, against the Church’s effort to control sexual behavior, preached that God is in all of us and, consequently, that it is impossible for us to sin.

Women and Heresy

One of the most significant aspects of the heretic movement is the high status it assigned to women. As Gioacchino Volpe put it, in the Church women were nothing, but here they were considered equal; they had the same rights as men, and could enjoy a social life and mobility (wandering, preaching) that nowhere else was available to them in the Middle Ages (Volpe 1971: 20; Koch 1983: 247). In the heretical sects, above all among the Cathars and Waldenses, women had the right to administer the sacraments, preach, baptize and even acquire sacerdotal orders. It is reported that Waldes split from the orthodoxy because his bishop refused to allow women to preach, and it is said of the Cathars that they worshipped a female figure, the Lady of Thought, that influenced Dante’s conception of Beatrice (Taylor 1954: 100). The heretics also allowed women and men to share the same dwellings, even if they were not married, since they did not fear that this would necessarily lead to promiscuous behavior. Heretical women and men often lived freely together, like brothers and sisters, as in the agapic communities of the early Church. Women also formed their own communities. A typical case was that of the Beguines, laywomen from the urban middle class who lived together (especially in Germany and Flanders), supporting themselves with their labor, outside of male control and without submitting to monastic rule (McDonnell 1954; Neel 1989).27

(Heretic woman condemned to be burned. Women had a large presence in the heretical movement in every country.)

Not surprisingly, women are present in the history of heresy as in no other aspect of medieval life (Volpe 1971: 20). According to Gottfried Koch, already in the 10ᵗʰ century they formed a large part of the Bogomils. In the 11ᵗʰ century, it was again women who gave life to the heretical movements in France and Italy. At this time female heretics came from the most humble ranks of the serfs, and they constituted a true women’s movement developing within the frame of the different heretic groups (Koch 1983: 246-47). Female heretics are also present in the records of the Inquisition; of some we know that they were burned, of others that they were “walled in” for the rest of their lives.

Can we say that this large female presence in the heretic sects was responsible for the heretics’ “sexual revolution”? Or should we assume that the call for “free love” was a male ploy designed to gain easy access to women’s sexual favors? These questions are not easily answered. We know, however, that women did try to control their reproductive function, as references to abortion and the use of contraceptives by women are numerous in the Penitentials. Significantly – in view of the future criminalization of such practices during the witch-hunt – contraceptives were referred to as “sterility potions” or maleficia (Noonan 1965: 155-61), and it was assumed that women were the ones who used them.

In the early Middle Ages, the Church still looked upon these practices with a certain indulgence, prompted by the recognition that women may wish to limit their births because of economic reasons. Thus, in the Decretum, written by Burchard, Bishop of Worms (circa 1010), after the ritual question –

Have you done what some women are accustomed to do when they fornicate and wish to kill their offspring, act with their maleficia, and their herbs so that they kill or cut the embryo, or, if they have not yet conceived, contrive that they do not conceive? (Noonan 1965: 160)

– it was stipulated that the guilty ones should do penance for ten years; but it was also observed that “it makes a big difference whether she is a poor little woman and acted on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether she acted to conceal a crime of fornication” (ibid.).

Things changed drastically, however, as soon as womens' control over reproduction seemed to pose a threat to economic and social stability, as it did in the aftermath of the demographic catastrophe produced by the “Black Death,” the apocalyptic plague that, between 1347 and 1352, destroyed more than one third of the European population (Ziegler 1969: 230).

We will see later what role this demographic disaster played in the “labor crisis” of the late Middle Ages. Here we can notice that, after the spread of the plague, the sexual aspects of heresy became more prominent in its persecution, grotesquely distorted in ways that anticipate the later representations of the witches’ Sabbat. By the mid-14ᵗʰ century the Inquisitors’ reports were no longer content with accusing the heretics of sodomy and sexual license. Now heretics were accused of animal worship, including the infamous bacium sub cauda (the kiss under the tail), and of indulging in orgiastic rituals, night flights and child sacrifices (Russell 1972). The Inquisitors also reported the existence of a sect of devil-worshippers called Luciferans. Corresponding to this process, which marked the transition from the persecution of heresy to witch-hunting, the figure of the heretic increasingly became that of a woman, so that, by the beginning of the 15ᵗʰ century, the main target of the persecution against heretics became the witch.

This was not the end of the heretic movement, however. Its final consummation came in 1533, with the attempt by the Anabaptists to set up a City of God in the German town of Münster. This was crushed with a blood bath, followed by a wave of merciless reprisals that affected prolerarian struggles all over Europe (Po-chia Hsia 1988a: 51-69).

Until then, neither the fierce persecution nor the demonization of heresy could prevent the dissemination of heretic beliefs. As Antonino di Stefano writes, excommunication, the confiscation of property, torture, death at the stake, the unleashing of crusades against heretics – none of these measures could undermine the “immense vitality and popularity” of the haeretica pravitatis (heretic evil) (di Stefano 1950: 769). “There is not one commune,” wrote James de Vitry at the beginning of the 13ᵗʰ century, “in which heresy does not have its supporters, its defenders and believers.” Even after the 1215 crusade against the Albigensians, that destroyed the Cathars’ strongholds, heresy (together with Islam) remained the main enemy and threat the Church had to face. Its recruits came from all walks of life: the peasantry, the lower ranks of the clergy (who identified with the poor and brought to their struggles the language of the Gospel), the town burghers, and even the lesser nobility. But popular heresy was primarily a lower-class phenomenon. The environment in which it flourished was the rural and urban proletariat: peasants, cobblers, and cloth workers “to whom it preached equality, fomenting their spirit of revolt with prophetic and apocalyptic predictions” (ibid.: 776).

We get a glimpse of the popularity of the heretics from the trials which the Inquisition was still conducting in the 1330s, in the Trento region (Northern Italy), against those who had given hospitality to the Apostolics, when their leader, Fra Dolcino, had passed through the area thirty years before (Orioli 1993: 217-37). At the time of his coming, many doors had opened to give Dolcino and his followers shelter. Again, in 1304, when announcing the coming of a holy reign of poverty and love, Fra Dolcino set up a community among the mountains of the Vercellese (Piedmont); the local peasants, already in revolt against the Bishop of Vercelli, gave him their support (Mornese and Buratti 2000). For three years the Dolcinians resisted the crusades and the blockade the Bishop mounted against them – with women in male attire fighting side by side with men. In the end, they were defeated only by hunger and by the overwhelming superiority of the forces the Church mobilized agamst them (Lea 1961: 615-20; Hilton 973: 108). On the day when the troops amassed by the Bishop of Vercelli finally prevailed upon them, “more than a thousand heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruelest of deaths.” Dolcino’s companion, Margherita, was slowly burned to death before his eyes because she refused to abjure. Dolcino himself was slowly driven among the mountain roads and gradually torn to pieces, to provide a salutary example to the local population (Lea, 1961: 620).

Urban Struggles

Not only women and men but peasants and urban workers found in the heretic movement a common cause. This commonality of interests among people who could otherwise be assumed to have different concerns and aspirations can be accounted for on several grounds. First, in the Middle Ages, a tight relation existed between city and country. Many burghers were ex-serfs who had moved or fled to the city in the hope of a better life, and, while exercising their arts, continued to work the land, particularly at harvest time. Their thoughts and desires were still profoundly shaped by life in the village and by their continuing relationship to the land. Peasants and urban workers were also brought together by the fact that they were subjected to the same political rulers, since by the 13ᵗʰ century (especially in Northern and Central Italy), the landed nobility and the urban patrician merchants were becoming assimilated, functioning as one power structure. This situation promoted among workers mutual concerns and solidarity. Thus, whenever the peasants rebelled they found beside themselves the artisans and day laborers, as well as the growing mass of the urban poor. This was the case during the peasant revolt in maritime Flanders, which began in 1323 and ended in June 1328, after the King of France and the Flemish nobility defeated the rebels at Cassel in 1327. As David Nicholas writes, “{t}he rebels’ ability to continue the conflict for five years is conceivable only in the light of the city’s involvement” (Nicholas 1992: 213-14). He adds that, by the end of 1324, the peasants in revolt had been joined by the craftsmen at Ypres and Bruges:

Bruges, by now under the control of a weaver and fuller party, took direction of the revolt from the peasants. ...A war of propaganda began, as monks and preachers told the masses that a new era had come and that they were the equals of the aristocrats (ibid.: 213-14).

Another peasant-urban worker alliance was that of the Tuchins, a movement of “bandits” operating in the mountains of Central France, in which artisans joined an organization that was typical of the rural populations (Hilton 1973: 128).

What united peasants and artisans was a common aspiration to the levelling of differences. As Norman Cohn writes, this is evidenced in documents of various kinds:

From the proverbs or the poor that lament that, “The poor man works always, worries and labours and weeps, never laughing from his heart, while the rich man laughs and sings...”

From the miracle plays where it is stated that “...each man ought to have as much property as every other, and we have nothing we can call our own. The great lords have all the property and poor folk have nothing but suffering and adversity...”

From the most widely read satires which denounced that, “Magistrates, provosts, beadles, mayors – nearly all live by robbery. They all batten on the poor, they all want to despoil them. ...The strong robs the weaker.” Or again: “Good working men make wheaten bread but they will never chew it; no, all they get is the siftings from the corn, and from good wine they get nothing but the dregs and from good cloth nothing but the chaff. Everything that is tasty and good goes to the nobles and the clergy. ...” (N. Cohn 1970: 99-100).

These complaints show how deep was the popular resentment against the inequalities that existed between the “big birds” and the “small birds,” the “fat people” and the “lean people,” as rich and poor were referred to in the Florentine political idiom of the 14ᵗʰ century. “Nothing will be well in England until we are of the same condition,” John Ball proclaimed during his drive to organize the 1381 English Peasant Rising (ibid.: 199).

As we have seen, the main expressions of this aspiration to a more egalitarian society were the exaltation of poverty and the communism of goods. But the affirmation of an egalitarian perspective was also reflected in a new attitude towards work, most evident among the heretic sects. On one side, we have a “refusal of work” strategy, such as that adopted by the French Waldenses (the Poor of Lyon), and the members of some conventual orders (Franciscans, Spirituals), who, wishing to be free from mundane cares, relied on begging and community support for their survival. On the other, we have a new valorization of work, particularly manual labor, that achieved its most conscious formulations in the propaganda of the English Lollards, who reminded their followers that “The nobles have beautiful houses, we have only work and hardships, but it is from our work that everything comes” (ibid.; Christie-Murray 1976: 114-15).

Undoubtedly, the appeal to the “value of work” – a novelty in a society dominated by a military class – functioned primarily as a reminder of the arbitrariness of feudal power. But this new awareness also demonstrates the emergence of new sociaI forces that played a crucial role in the downfall of the feudal system.

This valorization of work reflects the formation of an urban proletariat, made up in part of journeymen and apprentices – working under artisan masters, producing for the market – but mostly by waged day-laborers, employed by rich merchants in industries, producing for export. By the turn of the 14ᵗʰ century, in Florence, Siena, and Flanders, concentrations of up to 4,000 of such day-laborers (weavers, fullers, dyers) could be found in the textile industry. For them, life in the city was just a new type of serfdom, this time under the rule of the cloth merchants, who exercised the strictest control over their activities and the most despotic class rule. Urban wage-workers could not form any associations and were even forbidden to meet in any place and for any reason; they could not carry arms or even the tools of their trade; and they could not strike on pain of death (Pirenne 1956: 132). In Florence, they had no civil rights; unlike the journeymen, they were not part of any craft or guild, and they were exposed to the cruelest abuses at the hands of the merchants who, in addition to controlling the town government, ran their private tribunal and, with impunity, spied on them, arrested them, tortured them, and hanged them at the least sign of trouble (Rodolico 1971).

It is among these workers that we find the most extreme forms of social protest and the greatest acceptance of heretic ideas (ibid.: 56-59). Throughout the 14ᵗʰ century, particularly in the Flanders, cloth workers were engaged in constant rebellions against the bishop, the nobility, the merchants, and even the major crafts. At Bruges, when the main crafts gained power in 1348, wool workers continued to rebel against them. At Ghent, in 1335, a revolt by the local bourgeoisie was overtaken by a rebellion of weavers, who tried to establish a “workers’ democracy” based on the suppression of all authorities, except those living by manual labor (Boissonnade 1927: 310-11). Defeated by an impressive coalition of forces (including the prince, the nobility, the clergy, the bourgeoisie), the weavers tried again in 1378, when they succeeded in establishing what (with some exaggeration, perhaps) has been called the first “dictatorship of the proletariat” known in history. Their goal, according to Peter Boissonnade, was “to raise journeymen against masters, wage earners against great entrepreneurs, peasants against lords and clergy. It was said that they had contemplated the extermination of the whole bourgeois class, with the exception of children of six and the same for the nobles” (ibid.: 311). They were defeated only by a battle in the open field, at Roosebecque in 1382, where 26,000 of them lost their lives (ibid.).

The events at Bruges and Ghent were not isolated cases. In Germany and Italy as well, the artisans and laborers rebelled at every possible occasion, forcing the local bourgeoisie to live in a constant state of fear. In Florence, the workers seized power in 1379, led by the Ciompi, the day-laborers in the Florentine textile industry.28 They too established a workers’ government, but it lasted only a few months before being completely defeated by 1382 (Rodolico 1971). The workers at Liege, in the Low Countries, were more successful. In 1384, the nobility and the rich (“the great,” as they were called), incapable of continuing a resistance which had lasted for more than a century, capitulated. From then on, “the crafts completely dominated the town,” becoming the arbiter of the municipal government (Pirenne 1937: 201). The craftsmen had also given support to the peasants in revolt, in maritime Flanders, in a struggle that lasted from 1323 to 1328, which Pirenne describes as “a genuine attempt at a social revolution” (ibid.: 195). Here – according to a Flemish contemporary whose class allegiance is apparent – “the plague of insurrection was such that men became disgusted with life” (ibid.: 196). Thus, from 1320 to 1332, the “good people” of Ypres implored the king not to allow the town’s inner bastions, within which they lived, to be demolished because they protected them from the “common people” (ibid.: 202-03).

(Jaquerie. Peasants took arms in Flanders in 1323, in France in 1358, in England in 1381, in Florence, Ghent and Paris in 1370 and 1380.)


15. (Russell 1972: 136; Lea 1961: 126-27). Also the movement of the Pastoureaux was provoked by events in the East, this time the capture of King Louis IX of France by the Moslems, in Egypt, in 1249 (Hilton 1973: 100-02). A movement made of “humble and simple” people was organized to free him, but it quickly took on an anticlerical character. The Pastoreaux reappeared in Southern France in the spring and summer of 1320, still “directly influenced by the crusading atmosphere. ...{They} had no chance of crusading in the east; instead, they spent their energies on attacking the Jewish communities of south-west France, Navarre and Aragon, often with the complicity of local consulates, before being wiped out or dispelled by royal officials” (Barber 1992: 135-36).

16. The Crusade against the Albigensians (Cathars from the town of Albi, in southern France) was the first large-scale attack against the heretics, and the first Crusade against Europeans. Pope Innocent III launched it in the regions of Toulouse and Montpellier after 1209. In its wake, the persecution of heretics dramatically intensified. In 1215, on the occasion of the fourth Lateran council, Innocent III inserted in the council’s canons a set of measures that condemned heretics to exile, to the confiscation of their properties, and excluded them from civil life. Later, in 1224, the emperor Frederick II joined the persecution with the constitution Cum ad conservandum that defined heresy a crime of lesa maiestatis, to be punish with death by fire. In 1229, the Council of Toulouse established that heretics should be identified and punished. Proven heretics and their protectors were to be burned at the stake. The house where a heretic was discovered was to be destroyed, and the land upon which it was built confiscated. Those who reneged their beliefs were to be immuted, while those who relapsed were to suffer the supplice of fire. Then, in 1231-1233, Gregorio IX instituted a special tribunal with the specific function of eradicating heresy: the Inquisition. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV, with the consensus of the main theologians of the time, authorized the use of torture against heretics (Vauchez 1990: 163, 164, 165).

17. André Vauchez attributes the “success” of the Inquisition to its procedure. The arrest of suspects was prepared with utmost secrecy. At first, the persecution consisted of raids against heretics’ meetings, organized in collaboration with public authorities. Later, when Waldens and Cathars had already been forced to go underground, suspects were called in front of a tribunal without being told the reasons for their convocation. The same secrecy characterized the investigative process. The defendants were not told the charges moved against them, and those who denounced them were allowed to maintain their anonymity. Suspects were released, if they informed against their accomplices and promised to keep silent about their confessions. Thus, when heretics were arrested they could never know if anyone from their congregation had spoken against them (Vauchez 1990: 167-168). As Italo Mereu points out, the work of the Roman Inquisition left deep scars in the history of European culture, creating a climate of intolerance and institutional suspicion that continues to corrupt the legal system to this day. The legacy of the Inquisition is a culture of suspicion that relies on anonymous charges and preventive detention, and treats suspects as if already proven guilty (Mereu 1979).

18. Let us recall here Friedrick Engels’ distinction between the heretical beliefs of peasants and artisans, associated with their opposition to feudal authority, and those of the town burghers, that were primarily a protest against the clergy (Engels 1977: 43).

19. The politicization of poverty, together with the rise of a money-economy, brought about a decisive change in the attitude of the Church towards the poor. Until the 13ᵗʰ century, the Church exalted poverty as a holy state and engaged in distributions of alms, trying to convince the rustics to accept their situation and not envy the rich. In Sunday sermons, priests were prodigal with tales like that of the poor Lazarus sitting in heaven at the side of Jesus, and watching his rich but stingy neighbor burning in flames. The exaltation of sancta paupertas (“holy poverty”) also served to impress on the rich the need for charity as a means for salvation. This tactic procured the Church substantial donations of land, buildings and money, presumably to be used for distribution among the needy, and it enabled it to become one of the richest institutions in Europe. But when the poor grew in numbers and the heretics started to challenge the Church’s greed and corruption, the clergy dismissed its homilies about poverty and introduced many “distinguo.” Starting in the 13ᵗʰ century, it affirmed that only voluntary poverty has merit in the eyes of God, as a sign of humility and contempt for material goods; this meant, in practice, that help would now be given only to the “deserving poor,” that is, to the impoverished members of the nobility, and not to those begging in the streets or at city gates. The latter were increasingly looked upon with suspicion as guilty of laziness or fraud.

20. Much controversy took place among the Waldenses on the correct ways of supporting oneself. It was resolved, at the Bergamo Meeting of 1218, with a major split between the two main branches of the movement. The French Waldenses (Poor of Lyon) opted for a life supported by alms, while those of Lombardy decided that one must live out of his/her own labor and proceeded to form workers’ collectives or cooperatives (congregationes laborantium)(di Stefano 1950: 775). The Lombard Waldenses continued to maintain private possessions – houses and other forms of property – and they accepted marriage and the family (Little 1978: 125).

21. Holmes 1975: 202; N. Cohn 1970: 215-17; Hilton 1973: 124. As described by Engels, the Taborites were the revolutionary, democratic wing of the Hussite national liberation movement against the German nobility in Bohemia. Of them, Engels tells us only that “{T}heir demands reflected the desire of the peasantry and the urban lower classes to end all feudal oppression” (Engels 1977: 44n). But their remarkable story is more fully narrated in H. C. Lea’s The Inquisition of the Middle Ages (Lea 1961: 523-40), in which we read that they were peasants and poorfolk, who wanted no nobles or gentlemen in their ranks and had republican tendencies. They were called Taborites because in 1419, when the Hussites in Prague first came under attack, they moved on to Mount Tabor. There they founded a new town, that became a center of both resistance against the Gennan nobility, and experimentation with communism. The story has it that, on arrival from Prague, they put out large open chests in which each was asked to place his/her possessions, so that all things could be held in common. Presumably, this collective arrangement was shortlived, but its spirit lived on longer after its demise (Demetz 1997: 152-157).

The Taborites distinguished themselves from the more moderate Calixtins because they included among their objectives the independence of Bohemia, and the retention of the property which they had confiscated (Lea 1961: 530). They did agree, however, on the four articles of faith that united the Hussite movement in front of its foreign enemies:

I. Free preaching of the Word of God;

II. Communion in ;

III. The abolition of the clergy’s dominion over temporal possessions and its return to the evangelical life of Christ and the apostles;

IV. The punishment of all offenses against divine law without exception of person or condition.

Unity was much needed. To stamp out the revolt of the Hussites, the Church, in 1421, sent against Taborites and Calixtins an army of 150,000. “Five times,” Lea writes, “during 1421, the crusaders invaded Bohemia, and five times they were beaten back.” Two years later, at the Council of Siena, the Church decided that, if the Bohemian heretics could not be defeated militarily, they should be isolated and starved out through a blockade. But that too failed and Hussite ideas continued to spread into Germany, Hungary, and the Slavic territories to the South. Another army of 100,000 was once more launched against them, in 1431, again to no avail. This time the crusaders fled the battlefield even before the battle started, on “hearing the battle hymn of the dreaded Hussite troops” (ibid.).

What, in the end, destroyed the Taborites were the negotiations that took place between the Church and the moderate wing of the Hussites. Cleverly, the ecclesiastic diplomats deepened the split between the Calixtins and the Taborites. Thus, when another crusade was launched against the Hussites, the Calixtins joined the Catholic barons in the pay of the Vatican, and exterminated their brothers at the Battle of Lipan, on May 30, 1434. On that day, more than 13,000 Taborites were left dead on the battlefield.

Women were very active in the Taborite movement as in all heretic movements. Many fought in the battle for Prague in 1420 when 1500 Taborite women dug a long trench which they defended with stones and pitchforks (Demetz 1997).

(John Hus being martyred at Gottlieben on the Rhine in 1413. After his death, his ashes were thrown into the river.)

22. These words – “the most moving plea for social equality in the history of the English language,” according to the historian R. B. Dobson – were actually put into John Ball’s mouth to incriminate him and make him appear like a fool, by a contemporary French chronicler, Jean Froissart, a stern opponent of the English Peasants’ Revolt. The first sentence of the sermon, which John Ball was said to have given many times, (in Lord Berners’ 16ᵗʰ-century translation) is as follows: “Ah, ye good people, matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everyting be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we may be united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be” (Dobson 1983: 371).

23. By 1210 the Church had labeled the demand for the abolition of the death penalty an heretical “error,” which it attributed to the Waldenses and the Cathars. So strong was the presumption that the opponents of the Church were abolitionists that every heretic who wanted to submit to the Church had to affirm that “the secular power can, withom mortal sin, exercise judgement of blood, provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation” (Mergiven 1997: 101). As J. J. Mergiven points out, the heretical movement took the moral high ground on this question, and “forced the ‘orthodox,’ ironically, to take up the defense of a very questionable practice” (ibid.: 103).

24. Among the evidence proving the Bogomils’ influence on the Cathars there are two works that “the Cathars of Western Europe took over from the Bogomils.” They are: The Vision of Isaiah and The Secret Supper, cited in Wakefield and Evans’s review of Catharist literature (1969: 447-465).

The Bogomils were for the Eastern Church what the Cathars were for the Western. Aside from their Manicheanism and anti-natalism, the Byzantine authorities were most alarmed by the Bogomils’ “radical anarchism,” civil disobedience, and class hatred. As Presbyter Cosmas wrote, in his sermons against them: “They teach their own people not to obey their masters, they revile the wealthy, hate the king, ridicule the elders, condemn the boyars, regard as vile in the eyes of God those who serve the king, and forbid every serf to work for his lord.” The heresy had a tremendous and long-term influence on the peasantry of the Balkans. “The Bogomils preached in the language of the people, and their message was understood by the people ... their loose organisation, their attractive solution of the problem of evil, and their commitment to social protest made their movement virtually indestructible” (Browning 1975: 164- 166). The influence of the Bogomils on heresy is traceable in the use, common by the 13th century, of “buggery,” to connote first heresy and then homosexuality (Bullough 1976a: 76ff.).

25. The ban which the Church imposed upon clerical marriages and concubinage was motivated, more than by any need to restore its reputation, by the desire to defend its property, which was threatened by too many subdivisions, and by the fear that the wives of the priests might unduly interfere in clerical affairs (McNamara and Wemple 1988: 93-95). The ruling of the Second Lateran Council strengthened a resolution that had already been adopted in the previous century, but had not been observed in the midst of an open revolt against this innovation. The protest had climaxed in 1061 with an “organized rebellion” leading to the election of the Bishop of Parma as Antipope, under the title of Honorious II, and his subsequent, failed attempt to capture Rome (Taylor 1954: 35). The Lateran Council of 1123 not only banned clerical marriages, but declared those existent invalid, throwing the priests families, above all their wives and children, into a state of terror and destitution (Brundage 1987: 214, 216-17).

26. The reforming canons of the 12ᵗʰ century ordered married couples to avoid sex during the three Lenten seasons associated with Easter, Pentacost and Christmas, on every Sunday of the year, on feast days prior to receiving communion, on their wedding nights, during their wife's menstrual periods, during pregnancy, during lactation, and while doing penance (Brundage 1987: 198-99). These restrictions were not new. They were reaffirmations of the ecclesiastic wisdom embodied in dozens of Penitentials. What was novel was that they now became incorporated within the body of Canon Law “which was transformed into an effective instrument for Church government and discipline in the twelfth century.” Both the Church and the laity recognized that a legal requirement with explicit penalties would have a different status than a penance suggested by one’s confessor. In this period, the most intimate relations between people became a matter for lawyers and penologists (Brundage 1987: 578).

27. The relation between the Beguines and heresy is uncertain. While some of their contemporaries, like James de Vitry – described by Carol Neel as “an important ecclesiastical administrator” – supported their initiative as an alternative to heresy, “they were finally condemned on suspicion of heresy by the Council of Vienne of 1312, likely because of the clergy’s intolerance of women who escaped male control. The Beguines subsequently disappeared, “forced out of existence by ecclesiastical reprobation” (Neel 1989: 324-27, 329, 333, 339).

28. The Ciompi were those who washed, combed, and greased the wool so that it could be worked. They were considered unskilled workers and had the lowest social status. “Ciompo” is a derogatory term, meaning dirty and poorly dressed, probably due to the fact that the “ciompi” worked half-naked and were always greasy and stained with dyes. Their revolt began in July 1382, sparked by the news that one of them, Simoncino, had been arrested and tortured. Apparently, under torture he had been made to reveal that the ciompi had held a secret meeting during which, kissing each other on the mouth, they had promised to defend each other from the abuses of their employers. Upon hearing of Simoncino’s arrest, workers rushed to the guild hall of the wool industry (Palazzo dell’ Arte), demanding that their comrade be released. Then, after securing his release, they occupied the guild hall, put patrols on Ponte Vecchio, and hung the insignia of the “minor guilds” (arti minori) from the windows of the guild hall. They also occupied the city hall where they claimed to have found a room full of nooses which, they believed, were meant for them. Seemingly in control of the situation, the ciompi presented a petition demanding that they become part of the government, that they no longer be punished by the cutting of a hand for non-payment of debts, that the rich pay more taxes, and that corporal punishment be replaced by monetary fines. In the first week of August, they formed a militia and set up three new crafts, while preparations were made for an election in which, for the first time, members of the ciompi would participate. Their new power, however, lasted no more than a month, as the wool magnates organized a lock-out that reduced them to hunger. After their defeat, many were arrested, hung and decapitated; many more had to leave the city in an exodus that marked the beginning of the decline of the wool industry in Florence (Rodolico 1971: passim).

*extremly depressed voice* I wish I was a witch and could cast spells
The Black Death and the Labor Crisis

A turning point in the course of the medieval struggles was the Black Death, which killed, on an average, between 30% and 40% of the European population (Ziegler 1969: 230). Coming in the wake of the Great Famine of 1315-22, that weakened people’s resistance to disease (Jordan 1996), this unprecedented demographic collapse profoundly changed Europe’s social and political life, practically inaugurating a new era. Social hierarchies were turned upside down because of the levelling effects of the widespread morbidity. Familiarity with death also undermined social discipline. Confronted with the possibility of sudden death, people no longer cared to work or to abide by social and sexual regulations, but tried to have the best of times, feasting for as long as they could without thought of the future.

However, the most important consequence of the plague was the intensification of the labor crisis generated by the class conflict; for the decimation of the work-force made labor extremely scarce, critically increased its cost, and stiffened people’s determination to break the shackles of feudal rule.

As Christopher Dyer points out, the scarcity of labor which the epidemic caused shifted the power relation to the advantage of the lower classes. When land had been scarce, the peasants could be controlled by the threat of expulsion. But after the population was decimated and land became abundant, the threats of the lords ceased to have any serious effect, as the peasants could now freely move and find new land to cultivate (Dyer 1968: 26). Thus, while the crops were rotting and livestock wandered in the fields, peasants and artisans suddenly became masters of the situation. A symptom of this development was the growth of rent strikes, bolstered by threats of a mass exodus to lands or to the city. As the manorial records laconically registered, the peasants “refused to pay” (negant solvere). They also declared that they “will not follow the customs any longer” (negant consuetudines), and ignored the orders of the lords to repair their houses, clean ditches, or chase escaped serfs (ibid.: 24).

By the end of the 14ᵗʰ century the refusal of rent and services had become a col­lective phenomenon. Entire villages jointly organized to stop paying fines, taxes and tallage, and no longer recognized the commuted services, or the injunctions of the manorial courts which were the main instrument of feudal power. In this context, the quantity of rent and services withheld became less important than the fact that the class relation, on which the feudal order was based, was subverted. This is how an early 16ᵗʰ century writer, whose words reflect the viewpoint of the nobility, summed up the situation:

The peasants are too rich ... and do not know what obedience means; they don't take law into any account, they wish there were no nobles ... and they would like to decide what rent we should get for our lands (ibid.: 33).

In response to the increased cost of labor and the collapse of the feudal rent, various attempts were made to increase the exploitation of work, either through the restoration of labor services or, in some cases, the revival of slavery. In Florence, the importation of slaves was authorized in 1366.29 But such measures only sharpened the class conflict. In England, it was an attempt by the nobility to contain the cost of labor, by means of a Labor Statute limiting the maximum wage, that caused the Peasant Rising of 1381. This spread from region to region and ended with thousands of peasants marching from Kent to London “to talk to the king” (Hilton 1973; Dobson 1983). Also in France, between 1379 and 1382, there was a “whirlwind of revolution” (Boissonnade 1927: 314). Proletarian insurrections exploded at Berier, where forty weavers and cord-wainers were hanged. In Montpellier the workers in revolt proclaimed that “by Christmas we will sell Christian flesh at six pence a pound.” Revolts broke out in Carcassone, Orleans, Amiens, Tournai, Rouen and finally in Paris, where in 1413 a “workers’ democracy” came into power.30 In Italy the most important revolt was that of the Ciompi. lt began in July of 1382, when cloth-workers in Florence for a time forced the bourgeoisie to give them a share of government and declare a moratorium on all debts incurred by wage earners; they then proclaimed what, in essence, was a dictatorship of the proletariat (“God's people”), though one soon crushed by the combined forces of the nobility and the bourgeoisie (Rodolico 1971).

“Now is the time” – the sentence that recurs in the letters of John Ball - well illustrates the spirit of the European proletariat at the close of the 14ᵗʰ century, a time when, in Florence, the wheel of fortune was beginning to appear on the walls of taverns and work-shops, to symbolize the imminent change of lot.

In the course of this process, the political horizon and the organizational dimensions of the peasant and artisan struggle broadened. Entire regions revolted, forming assemblies and recruiting armies. At times, the peasants organized in bands, attacking the castles of the lords, and destroying the archives where the written marks of their servitude were kept. By the 15ᵗʰ century the confrontation between the peasants and the nobility turned into true wars, like that of the remensas in Spain, that lasted from 1462 to 1486.31 In Germany a cycle of “peasant wars” began in 1476 with the conspiracy led by Hans the Piper. This escalated into four bloody rebellions led by Bundschuch (“Peasant Union”) between 1493 and 1517, and culminating in a full-fledged war that lasted from 1522 to 1525, spreading over four countries (Engels 1977; Blickle 1977).

(The Black Death destroyed one-third of the population of Europe. It was a turning point in European history, socially and politically.)

In all these cases, the rebels did not content themselves with demanding some restrictions to feudal rule, nor did they only bargain for better living conditions. Their aim was to put an end to the power of the lords. As the English peasants declared during the Peasant Rising of 1381, “the old law must be abolished.” Indeed, by the beginning of the 15ᵗʰ century, in England at least, serfdom or villeinage had almost completely disappeared, though the revolt had been politically and militarily defeated and its leaders brutally executed (Titow 1969: 58).

What followed has been described as the “golden age of the European proletariat” (Marx 1909, Vol. I; Braudel 1967: 128ff.), a far cry from the canonic representation of the 15ᵗʰ century, which has been iconographically immortalized as a world under the spell of the dance of death and memento mori.

Thorold Rogers has painted a utopian image of this period in his famous study of wages and living conditions in medieval England. “At no time,” Rogers wrote, “were wages {in England} so high and food so cheap” (Rogers 1894: 326ff). Workers sometimes were paid for every day of the year, although on Sunday and the main holidays they did not work. They were also fed by their employers, and were paid a viaticum for coming and going from home to work, at so much per mile of distance. In addition, they demanded to be paid in money, and wanted to work only five days a week.

As we shall see, there are reasons to be skeptical about the extent of this cornucopia. However, for a broad section of the western European peasantry, and for urban workers, the 15ᵗʰ century was a period of unprecedented power. Not only did the scarcity of labor give them the upper hand, but the spectacle of employers competing for their services strengthened their sense of self-value, and erased centuries of degradation and subservience. The ‘scandal’ of the high wages the workers demanded was only matched, in the eyes of the employers, by the new arrogance they displayed - their refusal to work, or to continue to work after having satisfied their needs (which they now could do more quickly because of their higher wages); their stubborn determination to hire themselves out only for limited tasks, rather than for prolonged periods of time; their demands for other perks beside their wages; and their ostentatious clothing which, according to the complaints of contemporary social critics, made them indistinguishable from the lords. “Servants are now masters and masters are servants,” complained John Gower in Mirour de l’omme (1378), “the peasant pretends to imitate the ways of the freeman, and gives himself the appearance of him in his clothes” (Hatcher 1994: 17).

The condition of the landless also improved after the Black Death (Hatcher 1994). This was not just an English phenomenon. In 1348 the canons of Normandy complained that they could not find anyone to cultivate their lands who did not ask for more than what six servants had earned at the beginning of the century. Wages doubled and trebled in Italy, France and Germany (Boissonnade 1927: 316-20). In the lands of the Rhine and Danube, the daily agricultural wage became equivalent in purchasing power to the price of a pig or sheep, and these wage rates applied to women as well, for the differential between female and male earnings was drastically reduced in the wake of the Black Death.

What this meant for the European proletariat was not only the achievement of a standard of living that remained unparalleled until the 19ᵗʰ century, but the demise of serfdom. By the end of the 14ᵗʰ century land bondage had practically disappeared (Marx 1909, Vol. I: 788). Everywhere serfs were replaced by free farmers – copy holders or lease holders – who would accept work only for a substantial reward.

Sexual Politics, the Rise of the State and Counter-Revolution

However, by the end of the 15ᵗʰ century, a counter-revolution was already under way at every level of social and political life. First, efforts were made by the political authorities to co-opt the youngest and most rebellious male workers, by means of a vicious sexual politics that gave them access to free sex, and turned class antagonism into an antagonism against proletarian women. As Jacques Rossiaud has shown in Medieval Prostitution (1988), in France, the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class. In 14ᵗʰ-century Venice, the rape of an unmarried proletarian woman rarely called for more than a slap on the wrist, even in the frequent case in which it involved a group assault (Ruggiero 1989: 91-108). The same was true in most French cities. Here, the gang-rape of proletarian women became a common practice which the perpetrators would carry out openly and loudly at night in groups of two to fifteen, breaking into their victims’ homes, or dragging their victims through the streets, without any attempt to hide or disguise themselves. Those who engaged in these “sports” were young journeymen or domestic servants, and the penniless sons of well-to-do families, while the women targeted were poor girls, working as maids or washerwomen, of whom it was rumored that they were “kept” by their masters (Rossiaud 1988: 22). On average, half of the town male youth, at some point, engaged in these assaults, which Rossiaud describes as a form of class protest, a means for proletarian men – who were forced to postpone marriage for many years because of their economic conditions – to get back “their own,” and take revenge against the rich. But the results were destructive for all workers, as the state-backed raping of poor women undermined the class solidarity that had been achieved in the anti-feudal struggle. Not surprisingly, the authorities viewed the disturbances caused by such policy (the brawls, the presence of youth gangs roaming the streets at night in search of adventure and disturbing the public quiet) as a small price to pay in exchange for a lessening of social tensions, obsessed as they were with the fear of urban insurrections, and the belief that if the poor gained the upper hand they would take their wives and hold them in common (ibid.: 13).

For proletarian women, so cavalierly sacrificed by masters and servants alike, the price to be paid was inestimable. Once raped, they could not easily regain their place in society. Their reputation being destroyed, they would have to leave town or turn to prostitution (ibid.; Ruggiero 1985: 99). But they were not the only ones to suffer. The legalization of rape created a climate of intense misogyny that degraded all women regardless of class. It also desensitized the population to the perpetration of violence against women, preparing the ground for the witch-hunt which began in this same period. It was at the end of the 14ᵗʰ century that the first witch-trials took place, and for the first time the Inquisition recorded the existence of an all-female heresy and sect of devil-worshippers.

(Brothel, from a 15ᵗʰ-century German woodcut. Brothels were seen as a remedy for social protest, heresy, and homosexuality.)

Another aspect of the divisive sexual politics that the princes and municipal authorities pursued to diffuse workers’ protest was the institutionalization of prostitution, implemented through the opening of municipal brothels soon proliferating throughout Europe. Enabled by the contemporary high-wage regime, state-managed prostitution was seen as a useful remedy for the turbulence of proletarian youth, who in “la Grand Maison” – as the state-brothel was called in France – could enjoy a privilege previously reserved for older men (Rossiaud 1988). The municipal brothel was also considered a remedy against homosexuality (Otis 1985), which in several European towns (e.g., Padua and Florence) was widely and publicly practiced, but in the aftermath of the Black Death was beginning to be feared as a cause of depopulation.32

Thus, between 1350-1450, publicly managed, tax-financed brothels were opened in every town and village in Italy and France, in numbers far superior to those reached in the 19ᵗʰ century. Amiens alone had 53 brothels in 1453. In addition, all the restrictions and penalties against prostitution were eliminated. Prostitutes could now solicit their clients in every part of town, even in front of the church during Mass. They were no longer bound to any particular dress codes or the wearing of distinguishing marks, because prostitution was officially recognized as a public service (ibid.: 9-10).

Even the Church came to see prostitution as a legitimate activity. The state-managed brothel was believed to provide an antidote to the orgiastic sexual practices of the heretic sects, and to be a remedy for sodomy, as well as a means to protect family life.

It is difficult retrospectively to tell how far playing the “sex card” helped the state to discipline and divide the medieval proletariat. What is certain is that this sexual “new deal” was part of a broader process which, in response to the intensification of social conflict, led to the centralization of the state, as the only agent capable of confronting the generalization of the struggle and safeguarding the class relation.

In this process, as we will see later in this work, the state became the ultimate manager of class relations, and the supervisor of the reproduction of labor-power – a function it has continued to perfonn to this day. In this capacity, state officers passed laws in many countries that set Iimits to the cost of labor (by fixing the maximum wage), forbid vagrancy (now harshly punished) (Geremek 1985: 61ff), and encouraged workers to reproduce.

Ultimately, the mounting class conflict brought about a new alliance between the bourgeoisie and the nobility, without which proletarian revolts may not have been defeated. It is difficult, in fact, to accept the claim, often made by historians, according to which these struggles had no chance of success due to the narrowness of their political horizons and the “confused nature of their demands.” In reality, the objectives of the peasants and artisans were quite transparent. They demanded that “every man should have as much as another” (Pirenne 1937: 202) and, in order to achieve this goal, they joined with all those “who had nothing to lose,” acting in concert, in different regions, not afraid to confront the well-trained armies of the nobility, despite their lack of military skills.

If they were defeated, it was because all the forces of feudal power – the nobility, the Church, and the bourgeoisie – moved against them united, despite their traditional divisions, by their fear of proletarian rebellion. Indeed, the image that has been handed down to us, of a bourgeoisie perennially at war with the nobility, and carrying on its banners the call for equality and democracy, is a distortion. By the late Middle Ages, wherever we turn, from Tuscany to England and the Low Countries, we find the bourgeoisie already allied with the nobility in the suppression of the lower classes.33 For in the peasants and the democratic weavers and cobblers of its cities, the bourgeoisie recognized an enemy far more dangerous than the nobility – one that made it worthwhile for the burghers even to sacrifice their cherished political autonomy. Thus, it was the urban bourgeoisie, after two centuries of struggles waged in order to gain full sovereignty within the walls of its communes, who reinstituted the power of the nobility, by voluntarily submitting to the rule of the Prince, the first step on the road to the absolute state.


29. In the aftermath of the Black Death, every European country began to condemn idleness, and to persecute vagabondage, begging, and refusal of work. England took the initiative with the Statute of 1349 that condemned high wages and idleness, establishing that those who did not work, and did not have any means of survival, had to accept work. Similar ordinances were issued in France in 1351, when it recommended that people should not give food or hostel to healthy beggars and vagabonds. A further ordinance in 1354 established that those who remained idle, passing their time in taverns, playing dice or begging, had to accept work or face the consequences; first offenders would be put in prison on bread and water, while second offenders would be put in the stocks, and third offenders would be branded on the forehead. In the French legislation a new element appeared that became part of the modern struggle against vagabonds: forced labor. In Castile, an ordinance introduced in 1387 allowed private people to arrest vagabonds and employ them for one month without wages (Geremek 1985: 53-65).

30. The concept of “workers’ democracy” may seem preposterous when applied to these forms of government. But we should consider that in the U.S., which is often viewed as a democratic country, not one industrial worker has yet become President, and the highest governmental organs are all composed of representatives from an economic aristocracy.

31. The remensas was a redemption tax that the servile peasants in Catalonia had to pay to leave their holdings. After the Black Death, peasants subject to the remensas were also subjected to a new taxation known as the “five evil customs” (los malos usos) that, in earlier times, had been applied in a less generalized way (Hilton 1973: 117-18). These new taxes, and the conflicts revolving around the use of abandoned holdings were the source of a protracted, regional war, in the course of which the Catalonian peasants recruited one man from every three households. They also strengthened their ties by means of sworn associations, took decisions at peasant assemblies and, to intimidate the landowners, put up crosses and other threatening signs all over the fields. In the last phase of the war, they demanded the end of rent and the establishment of peasant property rights (ibid.: 120-21; 133).

32. Thus, the proliferation of public brothels was accompanied by a campaign against homosexuals that spread even to Florence, where homosexuality was an important part of the social fabric “attracting males of all ages, matrimonial conditions and social rank.” So popular was homosexuality in Florence that prostitutes used to wear male clothes to attract their customers. Signs of a change in Florence were two initiatives which the authorities introduced in 1403, when the city banned “sodomites” from public office, and set up a watchdog commission devoted to the extirpation of homosexuality: the Office of Decency. But significantly, the main step which the office took was to make preparations for the opening of new public brothel, so that, by 1418, the authorities were still looking for means to eradicate sodomy “from the city and from the county” (Rocke 1997: 30-32, 35). On the Florentine government’s promotion of publicly funded prostitution as a remedy against population decline and “sodomy,” see also Richard C. Trexler (1993).

Like other Italian cities of the fifteenth century, Florence believed that officially sponsored prostitution combatted two other evils of incomparably greater moral and social import: male homosexuality – whose practice was thought to obscure the difference between the sexes and thus all difference and decorum – and the decline in the legitimate population which resulted from an insufficient number of marriages (p. 32).

Trexler poims out that the same correlation between the spread of homosexuality, population decline, and the sponsorship of public prostitution can be found in late fourteenth-century, early fifteenth-century Lucca, Venice and Siena, and that the growth in the number and social power of prostitutes eventually led to a backlash, so that whereas

{i}n the early fifteenth century preachers and statesmen {in Florence} had deeply believed that no city could long endure in which females and males seemed the same … {a} century later {they} wondered if it could survive when {upper} class women could not be distinguished from brothel prostitutes (ibid.: 65).

33. In Tuscany, where the democratization of political life had proceeded further than in any other European region, by the second half of the 15ᵗʰ century, there was an inversion of this tendency and a restoration of the power of the nobility, promoted by the mercantile bourgeoisie to block the rise of the lower classes. By this time, an organic fusion had occurred between the families of the merchants and those of the nobility, achieved by means of marriages and the sharing of prerogatives. This put an end to that social mobility that had been the major achievement of urban society and communal life in medieval Tuscany (Luzzati 1981: 187, 206).

(Albrecht Dürer, THE FALL OF MAN (1510)

This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work.)

The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women: Constructing “Difference” in the “Transition to Capitalism”

I demand whether all wars, bloodshed and misery came not upon the creation when one man endeavoured to be a lord over another?... And whether this misery shall not remove ... when all the branches of mankind shall look upon the earth as one common treasury to all.

– Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness, 1649

To him she was a fragmented commodity whose feelings and choices were rarely considered: her head and her heart were separated from her back and her hands and divided from her womb and vagina. Her back and muscle were pressed into field labor ... her hands were demanded to nurse and nurture the white man .... {H}er vagina, used for his sexual pleasure, was the gateway to the womb, which was his place of capital investment – the capital investment being the sex-act and the resulting child the accumulated surplus. …

– Barbara Omolade, “Heart of Darkness,” 1983

Part One: Introduction

The development of capitalism was not the only possible response to the crisis of feudal power. Throughout Europe, vast communalistic social movements and rebellions against feudalism had offered the promise of a new egalitarian society built on social equality and cooperation. However, by 1525 their most powerful expression, the “Peasant War” in Germany or, as Peter Blickle called it, the “revolution of the common man,” was crushed.1 A hundred thousand rebels were massacred in retaliation. Then, in 1535, “New Jerusalem,” the attempt made by the Anabaptists in the town of Münster to bring the kingdom of God to earth, also ended in a bloodbath, first undermined presumably by the patriarchal turn taken by its leaders who, by imposing polygamy, caused women among their ranks to revolt.2 With these defeats, compounded by the spreads of witch-hunts and the effects of colonial expansion, the revolutionary process in Europe came to an end. Military might was not sufficient, however, to avert the crisis of feudalism.

By the late Middle Ages the feudal economy was doomed, faced with an accumulation crisis that stretched for more than a century. We deduce its dimension from some basic estimates indicating that between 1350 and 1500 a major shift occurred in the power-relation between workers and masters. The real wage increased by 100%, prices declined by 33%, rents also declined, the length of the working-day decreased, and a tendency appeared toward local self-sufficiency.3 Evidence of a chronic disaccumulation trend in this period is also found in the pessimism of the contemporary merchants and landowners, and the measures which the European states adopted to protect markets, suppress competition and force people to work at the conditions imposed. As the entries in the registers of the feudal manors recorded, “the work {was} not worth the breakfast” (Dobb 1963: 54). The feudal economy could not reproduce itself, nor a capitalist society have “evolved” from it, for self-sufficiency and the new high-wage regime allowed for the “wealth of the people,” but “excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth” (Marx 1909, Vol. I: 789).

It was in response to this crisis that the European ruling class launched the global offensive that in the course of at least three centuries was to change the history of the planet, laying the foundations of a capitalist world-system, in the relentless attempt to appropriate sources of wealth, expand its economic basis, and bring new workers under its command.

As we know, “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in brief force” were the pillars of this process (ibid.: 785). Thus, the concept of a “transition to capitalism” is in many ways a fiction. British historians, in the 1940s and 1950s, used it to define a period – roughly from 1450 to 1650 – in which feudalism in Europe was breaking down while no new social-economic system was yet in place, though elements of a capitalist society were taking shape.4 The concept of “transition,” then, helps us to think of a prolonged process of change and of societies in which capitalist accumulation coexisted with political formations not yet predominantly capitalistic. The term, however, suggests a gradual, linear historical development, whereas the period it names was among the bloodiest and most discontinuous in world history – one that saw apocalyptic transformations and which historians can only describe in the harshest terms: the Iron Age (Kamen), the Age of Plunder (Hoskins), and the Age of the Whip (Stone). “Transition,” then, cannot evoke the changes that paved the way to the advent of capitalism and the forces that shaped them. In this volume, therefore, I use the term primarily in a temporal sense, while I refer to the social processes that characterized the “feudal reaction” and the development of capitalist relations with the Marxian concept of “primitive accumulation,” though I agree with its critics that we must rethink Marx’s interpretation of it.5

Marx introduced the concept of “primitive accumulation” at the end of Capital Volume I to describe the social and economic restructuring that the European ruling class initiated in response to its accumulation crisis, and to establish (in polemics with Adam Smith)6 that: (i) capitalism could not have developed without a prior concentration of capital and labor; and that (ii) the divorcing of the workers from the means of production, not the abstinence of the rich, is the source of capitalist wealth. Primitive accumulation, then, is a useful concept, for it connects the “feudal reaction” with the development of the capitalist economy, and it identifies the historical and logical conditions for the development of capitalist system, “primitive” (“originary”) indicating a precondition for the existence of capitalist relations as much as a specific event in time.7

Marx, however, analyzed primitive accumulation almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the waged industrial proletariat: the protagonist, in his view, of the revolutionary process of his time and the foundation for the future communist society. Thus, in his account, primitive accumulation consists essentially in the expropriation of the land from the European peasantry and the formation of the “free,” independent worker, although he acknowledged that:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, {of America}, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are ... the chief moments of primitive accumulation... (Marx 1909, Vol. I: 823).

Marx also recognized that “{a} great deal of capital, which today appears in the United States without any certificate of birth, was yesterday in England the capitalized blood of children” (ibid.: 829-30). By contrast, we do not find in his work any mention of the profound transformations that capitalism introduced in the reproduction of labor-power and the social position of women. Nor does Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation mention the “Great Witch-Hunt” of the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, although this state-sponsored terror campaign was central to the defeat of the European peasantry, facilitating its expulsion from the lands it once held in common.

In this chapter and those that follow, I discuss these developments, especially with reference to Europe, arguing that:

I. The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the “New World,” were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and “accumulated.”

II. This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the “witches.”

III. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as “race” and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.

IV. We cannot, therefore, identify capitalist accumulation with the liberation of the worker, female or male, as many Marxists (among others) have done, or see the advent of capitalism as a moment of historical progress. On the contrary, capitalism has created more brutal and insiclious forms of enslavement, as it has planted into the body of the proletariat deep divisions that have served to intensify and conceal exploitation. It is in great part because of these imposed divisions – especially those between women and men – that capitalist accumulation continues to devastate life in every corner of the planet.

Capitalist Accumulation and the Accumulation of Labor in Europe

Capital, Marx wrote, comes on the face of the earth dripping blood and dirt from head to toe (1909, Vol. I: 834) and, indeed, when we look at the beginning of capitalist development, we have the impression of being in an immense concentration camp. In the “New World” we have the subjugation of the aboriginal populations to the regimes of the mita and cuatelchil8 under which multitudes of people were consumed to bring silver and mercury to the surface in the mines of Huancavelica and Potosi. In Eastern Europe, we have a “second serfdom,” tying to the land a population of farmers who had never previously been enserfed.9 In Western Europe, we have the Enclosures, the Witch-Hunt, the branding, whipping, and incarceration of vagabonds and beggars in newly constructed work-houses and correction houses, models for the future prison system. On the horizon, we have the rise of the slave trade, while on the seas, ships are already transporting indentured servants and convicts from Europe to America.

What we deduce from this scenario is that force was the main lever, the main economic power in the process of primitive accumulation10 because capitalist development required an immense leap in the wealth appropriated by the European ruling class and the number of workers brought under its command. In other words, primitive accumulation consisted in an immense accumulation of labor-power – “dead labor” in the form of stolen goods, and “living labor” in the form of human beings made available for exploitation – realized on a scale never before matched in the course of history.

Significantly, the tendency of the capitalist class, during the first three centuries of its existence, was to impose slavery and other forms of coerced labor as the dominant work relation, a tendency limited only by the workers’ resistance and the danger of the exhaustion of the work-force.

This was true not only in the American colonies, where, by the 16ᵗʰ century, economies based on coerced labor were forming, but in Europe as well. Later, I examine the importance of slave-labor and the plantation system in capitalist accumulation. Here I want to stress that in Europe, too, in the 15ᵗʰ century, slavery, never completely abolished, was revitalized.11

As reported by the Italian historian Salvatore Bono, to whom we owe the most extensive study of slavery in Italy, there were numerous slaves in the Mediterranean areas in the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, and their numbers grew after the Battle of Lepanto (1571) that escalated the hostilities against the Muslim world. Bono calculates that more than 10,000 slaves lived in Naples and 25,000 in the Napolitan kingdom as a whole (one per cent of the population) and similar figures apply to other Italian towns and to southern France. In Italy, a system of public slavery developed whereby thousands of kidnapped foreigners – the ancestors of today’s undocumented immigrant workers – were employed by city governments for public works, or were farmed out to private citizens who employed them in agriculture. Many were destined for the oars, an important source of such employment being the Vatican fleet (Bono 1999: 6-8).

Slavery is “that form {of exploitation} towards which the master always strives” (Dockes 1982: 2). Europe was no exception. This must be emphasized to dispel the assumption of a special connection between slavery and Africa.12 But in Europe slavery remained a limited phenomenon, as the material conditions for it did not exist, although the employers’ desires for it must have been quite strong if it took until the 18ᵗʰ century before slavery was outlawed in England. The attempt to bring back serfdom failed as well, except in the East, where population scarcity gave landlords the upper hand.13 In the West its restoration was prevented by peasant resistance culminating in the “German Peasant War.” A broad organizational effort spreading over three countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and joining workers from every field (farmers, miners, artisans, including the best German and Austrian artists),14 this “revolution of the common man” was a watershed in European history. Like the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, it shook the powerful to the core, merging in their consciousness with the Anabaptists’ takeover of Münster, which confirmed their fears that an international conspiracy was underway to overthrow their power.15 After its defeat, which occurred in the same year as the conquest of Peru, and which was commemorated by Albrecht Dürer with the “Monument to the Vanquished Peasants” (Thea 1998: 65; 134-35), the revenge was merciless. “Thousands of corpses laid on the ground from Thuringia to Abace, in the fields, in the woods, in the ditches of a thousand dismantled, burned castles,” “murdered, tortured, impaled, martyred” (ibid.: 153, 146). But the clock could not be turned back. In various parts of Germany and the other territories that had been at the center of the “war.” Customary rights and even forms of territorial government were preserved.16

This was an exception. Where workers’ resistance to re-enserfment could not be broken, the response was the expropriation of the peasantry from its land and the introduction of forced wage-labor. Workers attempting to hire themselves out independently or leave their employers were punished with incarceration and even with death, in the case of recidivism. A “free” wage labor-market did not develop in Europe until the 18ᵗʰ century, and even then, contractual wage-work was obtained only at the price of an intense struggle and by a limited set of laborers, mostly male and adult. Nevertheless, the fact that slavery and serfdom could not be restored meant that the labor crisis that had characterized the late Middle Ages continued in Europe into the 17ᵗʰ century, aggravated by the fact that the drive to maximize the exploitation of labor put in jeopardy the reproduction of the work-force. This contradiction – which still characterizes capitalist development17 – exploded most dramatically in the American colonies, where work, disease, and disciplinary punishments destroyed two thirds of the native American population in the decades immediately after the Conquest.18 It was also at the core of the slave trade and the exploitation of slave labor. Millions of Africans died because of the torturous living conditions to which they were subjected during the Middle Passage and on the plantations. Never in Europe did the exploitation of the work-force reach such genocidal proportions, except under the Nazi regime. Even so, there too, in the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, land privatization and the commodification of social relations (the response of lords and merchants to their economic crisis) caused widespread poverty, mortality, and an intense resistance that threatened to shipwreck the emerging capitalist economy. This, I argue, is the historical context in which the history of women and reproduction in the transition from feudalism to capitalism must be placed; for the changes which the advent of capitalism introduced in the social position of women – especially at the proletarian level, whether in Europe or America – were primarily dictated by the search for new sources of labor as well as new forms of regimentation and division of the work-force.

(Peasant unfurling the banner of “Freedom.”)

(Albrecht Dürer, MONUMENT TO THE VANQUISHED PEASANTS. (1526). This picture, representing a peasant enthroned on a collection of objects from his daily life, is highly ambiguous. It can suggest that the peasants were betrayed or that they themselves should be treated as traitors. Accordingly, it has been interpreted either as a satire of the rebel peasants or as a homage to their moral strength. What we know with certainty is that Dürer was profoundly perturbed by the events of 1525, and, as a convinced Lutheran, must have followed Luther in his condemnation of the revolt.)

In support of this statement, I trace the main developments that shaped the advent of capitalism in Europe – land privatization and the Price Revolution – to argue that neither was sufficient to produce a self-sustaining process of proletarianization. I then examine in broad oudines the policies which the capitalist class introduced to discipline, reproduce, and expand the European proletariat, beginning with the attack it launched on women, resulting in the construction of a new patriarchal order, which I define as the “patriarchy of the wage.” Lastly, I look at the production of racial and sexual hierarchies in the colonies, asking to what extent they could form a terrain of confrontation or solidarity between indigenous, African, and European women and between women and men.


1. Peter Blickle objects to the concept of a “peasant war” because of the social position of this revolution, which included many artisans, miners, and intellectuals among its ranks. The Peasant War combined ideological sophistication, expressed in the twelve “articles” which the rebels put forward, and a powerful military organization. The twelve “articles” included: the refusal of bondage, a reduction of the tithes, a repeal of the poaching laws, an affirmation of the rights to gather wood, a lessening of labor services, a reduction of rents, an affirmation of the rights to use the common, and an abolition of death taxes (Bickle 1985: 195-201). The exceptional military prowess demonstrated by the rebels depended in part on the participation of professional soldiers in the revolt, including the Landsknechte – the famous Swizz soldiers who, at the time, were the elite mercenary troops in Europe. The Landsknechte headed the peasant armies, putting their military expertise at their service and, in various occasions, refused to move against the rebels. In one case, they motivated their refusal by arguing that they too came from the peasantry and that they depended on the peasants for their sustenance in times of peace. When it was clear that they could not be trusted, the German princes mobilized the troops of the Swabian League, drawn from more remote regions, to break the peasant resistance. On the history of the Landsknechte and their participation in the Peasant War, see Reinhard Baumann, I Lanzichenecchi (1994: 237-256).

2. The Anabaptists, politically, represented a fusion of “the late medieval social movements and the new anti-clerical movement sparked off by the Reformation.” Like the medieval heretics, they condemned economic individualism and greed and supported a form of Christian communalism. Their take-over of Munster occurred in the wake of the Peasant War, when unrest and urban insurrections spread Frankfurt to Cologne and other towns of Northern Germany. In 1531, the crafts took control of the city of Munster, renamed it New Jerusalem, and under influence of immigrant Dutch Anabaptists, installed in it a communal government based upon the sharing of goods. As Po-Chia Hsia writes, the records of New Jerusalem were destroyed and its story has been told only by its enemies. Thus, we should not presume that events unfolded as narrated. According to the available records, women had at first enjoyed a high degree of freedom in the town; for instance, “they could divorce their unbelieving husbands and enter into new marriages.” Things changed with the decision by the reformed government to introduce polygamy in 1534, which provoked an “active resistance” among women, presumably repressed with imprisonment and even executions (Po-Chia 1988a: 58-59). Why this decision was taken is not clear. But the episode deserves more investigation, given the divisive role that the crafts played in the “transition” with regard to women. We know, in fact, that the craft campaigned in several tries to exclude women from the waged work-place, and nothing indicates they opposed the persecution of the witches.

3. For the rise of the real wage and the fall of prices in England, see North and Thomas (1973: 74). For Florentine wages, see Carlo M. Cipolla (1994: 206). For the fall in the value of output in England see R. H. Britnel (1993: 156-171). On the stagnation of agricultural production in a number of European countries, see B.H. Slicher Van Bath (1963: 160-170). Rodney Hilton argues that this period saw “a contraction of the rural and industrial economies ... probably felt in the first place by the ruling class .... Seigneurial revenues and industrial and commercial profits began to fall ... Revolt in the towns disorganized industrial production and revolt in the countryside strengthened peasant resistance to the payment of rent. Rent and profits thus dropped even further” (Hilton 1985: 240-241).

4. On Maurice Dobb and the debate on the transition to capitalism, see Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians. New York: St. Martin’s Press, (1984), 23-69.

5. Critics of Marx’s concept of “primitive accumulation” include: Samir Amin (1974) and Maria Mies (1986). While Samir Amin focusses on Marx’s Eurocentrism, Mies stresses Marx’s blindness to the exploitation of women. A different critique is found in Yann Moulier Boutang (1998) who faults Marx for generating the impression that the objective of the ruling class in Europe was to free itself from an unwanted work-force. Moulier Boutang underlines that the opposite was the case: land expropriation aimed to fix workers to their jobs, not to encourage mobility. Capitalism – as Moulier Boutang stresses –has always been primarily concerned with preventing the flight of labor (pp. 16-27).

6. As Michael Perelman points out, the term “primitive accumulation” was actually coined by Adam Smith and rejected by Marx, because of its ahistorical character in Smith’s usage. “To underscore his distance from Smith, Marx prefixed the pejorative ‘so-called’ to the title of the final part of the first volume of Capital, which he devoted to the study of primitive accumulation. Marx, in essence, dismissed Smith’s mythical ‘previous’ accumulation in order to call attention to the actual historical experience” (Perlman 1985: 25-26).

7. On the relation between the historical and the logical dimension of “primitive accumulation” and its implications for political movements today see: Massimo De Angelis, “Marx and Primitive Accumulation, The Continuous Character of Capital ‘Enclosures’.” In The Commoner: www.commoner.org.uk; Fredy Perlman, The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism. Detroit: Black and Red, 1985; and Mitchel Cohen, “Fredy Perlman: Out in Front of a Dozen Dead Oceans” (Unpublished manuscript, 1998).

8. For a description of the systems of the encomienda, mita, and catequil see (among others) Andr‎é Gunder Frank (1978), 45; Steve J. Stern (1982); and Inga Clendinnen (1987). As described by Gunder Frank, the encomienda was “a system under which rights to the labor of the Indian communities were granted to Spanish landowners.” But in 1548, the Spaniards “began to replace the encomienda de servicio by the repartimiento (called catequil in Mexico and mita in Peru), which required the Indian community’s chiefs to supply the Spanish juez repartidor (distributing judge) with a certain number of days of labor per month. ... The Spanish official in turn distributed this supply of labor to qualified enterprising labor contractors who were supposed to pay the laborers a certain minimum wage” (1978: 45). On the efforts of the Spaniards to bind labor in Mexico and Peru in the course of the various stages of colonization, and the impact on it of the catastrophic collapse of the indigenous population, see again Gunder Frank (ibid.: 43-49).

9. For a discussion of the “second serfdom” see Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) and Henry Kamen (1971). It is important here to stress that the newly enserfed peasants were now producing for the international grain market. In other words, despite the seeming backward character of the work-relation imposed upon them, under the new regime, they were an integral part of a developing capitalist economy and international capitalist division of labor.

10. I am echoing here Marx’s statement in Capital, Vol. I: “Force ... is in itself an economic power” (1909: 824). Far less convincing is Marx’s accompanying observation, according to which: “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” (ibid.). First, midwives bring life into the world, not destruction. This metaphor also suggests that capitalism “evolved” out of forces gestating in the bosom of the feudal world – an assumption which Marx himself refutes in his discussion of primitive accumulation. Comparing force to the generative power of a midwife also casts a benign veil over the process of capital accumulation, suggesting necessity, inevitability, and ultimately, progress.

11. Slavery had never been abolished in Europe, surviving in pockets, mostly as female domestic slavery. But by the end of the 15ᵗʰ century slaves began to be imported again, by the Portuguese, from Africa. Attempts to impose slavery continued in England through the 16ᵗʰ century, resulting (after the introduction of public relief) in the construction of work-houses and correction houses, which England pioneered in Europe.

12. See, on this point, Samir Amin (1974). To stress the existence of European slavery in the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries (and after) is also important because this fact has been often “forgotten” by European historians. According to Salvatore Bono, this self-induced oblivion was a product of the “Scramble for Africa,” which was justified as a mission aimed to terminate slavery on the African continent. Bono argues that Europe’s elites could not admit to having employed slaves in Europe, the alleged cradle of democracy.

13. Immanuel Wallerstein (1974), 90-95; Peter Kriedte (1978), 69-70.

14. Paolo Thea (1998) has powerfully reconstructed the history of the German artists who sided with the peasants.

“During the Protestant Reformation some among the best 16ᵗʰ-century German artists abandoned their laboratories to join the peasants in struggle. ...They drafted documents inspired by the principles of evangelic poverty, the common sharing of goods, and the redistribution of wealth. Sometimes ... they took arms in support of the cause.The endless list of those who, after the military defeats of May-June 1525, met the rigors of the penal code, mercilessly applied by the winners against the vanquished, includes famous names. Among them are {Jorg} Ratget quartered in Pforzheim (Stuttgart), {Philipp} Dietman beheaded, and {Tilman} Riemenschneider mutilated – both in Wurzburg – {Matthias} Grunewald chased from the court of Magonza where he worked. Holbein the Young was so troubled by the events that he fled from Basel, a city that was torn apart by religious conflict.” {My translation}

Also in Switzerland, Austria, and the Tyrol artists participated in the Peasant War, including famous ones like Lucas Cranach (Cranach the old) as well as myriad lesser painters and engravers (ibid.: 7). Thea points out that the deeply felt participation of the artists to the cause of the peasants is also demonstrated by the revaluation of rural themes depicting peasant life – dancing peasants, animals, and flora – in contemporary 16ᵗʰ-century German art (ibid.: 12-15; 73, 79, 80). “The countryside had become animated ... {it} had acquired in the uprising a personality worth of being represented” (ibid.: 155). {My translation}.

15. It was through the prism of the Peasant War and Anabaptism that the European governments, through the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, interpreted and repressed every form of social protest. The echoes of the Anabaptist revolution were felt in Elizabethan England and in France, inspiring utmost vigilance and severity with regard to any challenge to the constituted authority. “Anabaptist” became a cursed word, a sign of opprobrium and criminal intent, as “communist” was in the United States in the 1950s, and “terrorist” is today.

(Early 17ᵗʰ-century German engraving reviling the Anabaptists’ belief in the communistic sharing of goods.)

16. Village authority and privileges were maintained in the hinterland of some city-states. In a number of territorial states, the peasants “continued to refuse dues, taxes, and labor services”; “they let me yell and give me nothing,” complained the abbot of Schussenried, referring to those working on his land (Blickle 1985: 172). In Upper Swabia, though serfdom was not abolished, some of the main peasant grievances relating to inheritance and marriage rights were accepted with the Treaty of Menuningen of 1526. “On the Upper Rhine, too, some areas reached settlements that were positive for the peasants” (ibid.: 172-174). In Switzerland, in Bern and Zurich, serfdom was abolished. Improvements in the lot of the “common man” were negotiated in Tyrol and Salzburg (ibid.: 176-179). But “the true child of the revolution” was the territorial assembly, instituted after 1525 in Upper Swabia, providing the foundation for a system of self-government that remained in place till the 19ᵗʰ century. New territorial assemblies emerged after 1525 “{realizing} in a weakened form one of the demands of 1525: that the common man ought to be part of the territorial estates alongside the nobles, the clergy, and the towns.” Blickle concludes that “Wherever this cause won out, we cannot say that there the lords crowned their military conquest with political victory, {as} the prince was still bound to the consent of the common man. Only later, during the formation of the absolute state, did the prince succeed in freeing himself from that consent” (ibid.: 181-182).

17. Referring to the growing pauperization brought about across the world by capitalist development, the French anthropologist Claude Meillassoux, in Maidens, Meal and Money (1981), has argued that this contradiction spells a future crisis for capitalism: “In the end imperialism – as a means of reproducing cheap labor power – is leading capitalism to a major crisis, for even if there are still millions of people in the world ... not directly involved in capitalist employment ... how many are still capable owing to the social disruption, famine and wars it brings about, of producing their own subsistence and feeding their children?” (1981: 140).

18. The extent of the demographic catastrophe caused by “the Columbian Exchange” is still debated. Estimates of the population decline in South and Central America, in the first post-Columbian century, range widely, but contemporary scholarly opinion is almost unanimous in likening its effects to an American Holocaust. André Gunder Frank writes that: “Within little more than a century, the Indian population declined by ninety percent and even ninety-five percent in Mexico, Peru, and some other regions” (1978: 43). Similarly, Noble David Cook argues that: “Perhaps 9 million people resided within the limits delineated by Peru’s contemporary boundaries. The number of inhabitants remaining a century after contact was roughly a tenth of those that were there when the Europeans invaded the Andean world” (Cook 1981: 116).

Land Privatization in Europe, the Production of Scarcity, and the Separation of Production from Reproduction

From the beginning of capitalism, the immiseration of the working class began with war and land privatization. This was an international phenomenon. By the mid-16ᵗʰ century European merchants had expropriated much of the land of the Canary Islands and turned them into sugar plantations. The most massive process of land privatization and enclosure occurred in the Americas where, by the turn of the 17ᵗʰ century, one-third of the communal indigenous land had been appropriated by the Spaniards under the system of the encomienda. Loss of land was also one of the consequences of slave-raiding in Africa, which deprived many communities of the best among their youth.

In Europe land privatization began in the late-15ᵗʰ century, simultaneously with colonial expansion. It took different forms: the evictions of tenants, rent increases, and increased state taxation, leading to debt and the sale of land. I define all these forms as land expropriation because, even when force was not used, the loss of land occurred against the individual’s or the community’s will and undermined their capacity for subsistence. Two forms of land expropriation must be mentioned: war – whose character changed in this period, being used as a means to transform territorial and economic arrangements – and religious reform.

“{B}efore 1494 warfare in Europe had mainly consisted of minor wars characterized by brief and irregular campaigns” (Cunningham and Grell 2000: 95). These often took place in the summer to give the peasants, who formed the bulk of the armies, the time to sow their crops; armies confronted each other for long periods of time without much action. But by the 16ᵗʰ century wars became more frequent and a new type of warfare appeared, in part because of technological innovation but mostly because the European states began to turn to territorial conquest to resolve their economic crisis and wealthy financiers invested in it. Military campaigns became much longer. Armies grew tenfold, and they became permanent and professionalized.19 Mercenaries were hired who had no attachment to the local population; and the goal of warfare became the elimination of the enemy, so that war left in its wake deserted villages, fields covered with corpses, famines, and epidemics, as in Albrecht Dürer’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1498).20 This phenomenon, whose traumatic impact on the population is reflected in numerous artistic representations, changed the agricultural landscape of Europe.

(Jaques Callot, THE HORRORS OF WAR (1633). Engraving. The men hanged by military authorities were former soldiers turned robbers. Dismissed soldiers were a large part of the vagabonds and beggars that crowded the roads of 17ᵗʰ-century Europe.)

Many tenure contracts were also annulled when the Church’s lands were confiscated in the course of the Protestant Reformation, which began with a massive landgrab by the upper class. In France, a common hunger for the Church’s land at first united the lower and higher classes in the Protestant movement, but when the land was auctioned, starting in 1563, the artisans and day-laborers, who had demanded the expropriation of the Church “with a passion born of bitterness and hope,” and had mobilized with the promise that they too would receive their share, were betrayed in their expectations (Le Roy Ladurie 1974: 173-76). Also the peasants, who had become Protestant to free themselves from the tithes, were deceived. When they stood by their rights, declaring that “the Gospel promises land freedom and enfranchisement,” they were savagely attacked as fomenters of sedition (ibid.: 192).21 In England as well, much land changed hands in the name of religious reform. W. G. Hoskin has described it as “the greatest transference of land in English history since the Norman Conquest” or, more succinctly, as “The Great Plunder.”22 In England, however, land privatization was mostly accomplished through the “Enclosures,” a phenomenon that has become so associated with the expropriation of workers from their “common wealth” that, in our time, it is used by anti-capitalist activists as a signifier for every attack on social entitlements.23

In the 16ᵗʰ century, “enclosure” was a technical term, indicting a set of strategies the English lords and rich farmers used to eliminate communal land property and expand their holdings.24 It mostly referred to the abolition of the open-field system, an arrangement by which villagers owned non-contiguous strips of land in a non-hedged field. Enclosing also included the fencing off of the commons and the pulling down of the shacks of poor cottagers who had no land but could survive because they had access to customary rights. 25 Large tracts of land were also enclosed to create deer parks, while entire villages were cast down, to be laid to pasture.

Though the Enclosures continued into the 18ᵗʰ century (Neeson 1993), even before the Reformation, more than two thousand rural communities were destroyed this way (Fryde 1996: 185). So severe was the extinction of rural villages that in 1518 and again in 1548 the Crown called for an investigation. But despite the appointment of several royal commissions, little was done to stop the trend. What began, instead, was an intense struggle, climaxing in numerous uprisings, accompanied by a long debate on the merits and demerits of land privatization which is still continuing today, revitalized by the World Bank’s assault on the last planetary commons.

Briefly put, the argument proposed by “modernizers,” from all political perspectives, is that the enclosures boosted agricultural efficiency, and the dislocations they produced were well compensated by a significant increase in agricultural productivity. It is claimed that the land was depleted and, if it had remained in the hands of the poor, it would have ceased to produce (anticipating Garret Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons”),26 while its takeover by the rich allowed it to rest. Coupled with agricultural innovation, the argument goes, the enclosures made the land more productive, leading to the expansion of the food supply. From this viewpoint, any praise for communal land tenure is dismissed as “nostalgia for the past,” the assumption being that agricultural communalism is backward and inefficient, and that those who defend it are guilty of an undue attachment to tradition.27

But these arguments do not hold. Land privatization and the commercialization of agriculture did not increase the food supply available to the common people, though more food was made available for the market and for export. For workers they inaugurated two centuries of starvation, in the same way as today, even in the most fertile areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, malnutrition is rampant due to the destruction of communal land-tenure and the “export or perish” policy imposed by the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs. Nor did the introduction of new agricultural techniques in England compensate for this loss. On the contrary, the development of agrarian capitalism “worked hand in glove” with the impoverishment of the rural population (Lis and Soly 1979: 102). A testimony to the misery produced by land privatization is the fact that, barely a century after the emergence of agrarian capitalism, sixty European towns had instituted some form of social assistance or were moving in this direction, and vagabondage had become an international problem (ibid.: 87). Population growth may have been a contributing factor; but its importance has been overstated, and should be circumscribed in time. By the last part of the 16ᵗʰ century, almost everywhere in Europe, the population was stagnating or declining, but this time workers did not derive any benefit from the change.

There are also misconceptions about the effectiveness of the open-field system agriculture. Neo-liberal historians have described it as wasteful, but even a supporter of land privatization like Jean De Vries recognizes that the communal use of agricultural fields had many advantages. It protected the peasants from harvest failure, due to the variety of strips to which a family had access; it also allowed for a manageable work-schedule (since each strip required attention at a different time); and it encouraged a democratic way of life, built on self-government and self-reliance, since all decisions – when to plant or harvest, when to drain the fens, how many animals to allow on the commons – were taken by peasant assemblies.28

The same considerations apply to the “commons.” Disparaged in 16ᵗʰ century literature as a source of laziness and disorder, the commons were essential to the reproduction of many small farmers or cottars who survived only because they had access to meadows in which to keep cows, or woods in which to gather timber, wild berries and herbs, or quarries, fish-ponds, and open spaces in which to meet. Beside encouraging collective decision-making and work cooperation, the commons were the material foundation upon which peasant solidarity and sociality could thrive. All the festivals, games, and gatherings of the peasant community were held on the commons.29 The social function of the commons was especially important for women, who, having less title to land and less social power, were more dependent on them for their subsistence, autonomy, and sodality. Paraphrasing Alice Clark’s statement about the importance of markets for women in pre-capitalist Europe, we can say that the commons too were for women the center of social life, the place where they convened, exchanged news, took advice, and where a women’s viewpoint on communal events, autonomous from that of men, could form (Clark 1968: 51).

This web of cooperative relations, which R. D. Tawney has referred to as the “primitive communism” of the feudal village, crumbled when the open-field system was abolished and the communal lands were fenced off (Tawney 1967). Not only did cooperation in agricultural labor die when land was privatized and individual labor contracts replaced collective ones; economic differences among the rural population deepened, as the number of poor squatters increased who had nothing left but a cot and a cow, and no choice but to go with “bended knee and cap in hand” to beg for a job (Seccombe 1992). Social cohesion broke down;30 families disintegrated, the youth left the village to join the increasing number of vagabonds or itinerant workers – soon to become the social problem of the age – while the elderly were left behind to fend for themselves. Particularly disadvantaged were older women who, no longer supported by their children, fell onto the poor rolls or survived by borrowing, petty theft, and delayed payments. The outcome was a peasantry polarized not only by the deepening economic inequalities, but by a web of hatred and resentments that is well-documented in the records of the witch-hunt, which show that quarrels relating to requests for help, the trespassing of animals, or unpaid rents were in the background of many accusations.31

The enclosures also undermined the economic situation of the artisans. In the same way in which multinational corporations take advantage of the peasants expropriated from their lands by the World Bank to construct “free export zone” where commodities are produced at the lowest cost, so, in the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, merchant capitalists took advantage of the cheap labor-force that had been made available in the rural areas to break the power of the urban guilds and destroy the artisans’ independence. This was especially the case in the textile industry that was reorganized as a rural cottage industry, and on the basis of the “putting out" system, the ancestor of today’s “informal economy,” also built on the labor of women and children.32 But textile workers were not the only ones whose labor was cheapened. As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working day. In Protestant areas this happened under the guise of religious reform, which doubled the work-year by eliminating the saints’ days.

Not surprisingly, with land expropriation came a change in the workers’ attitude towards the wage. WIllie in the Middle Ages wages could be viewed as an instrument of freedom (in contrast to the compulsion of the labor services), as soon as access to land came to an end wages began to be viewed as instruments of enslavement (Hill 1975: 181ff).33

Such was the hatred that workers felt for waged labor that Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, declared that it that it did not make any difference whether one lived under the enemy or under one’s brother, if one worked fora wage. This explains the growth, in the wake of the enclosures (using the term in a broad sense to include all forms of land privatization), of the number of “vagabonds” and “masterless” men, who preferred to take to the road and to risk enslavement or death – as prescribed by the “bloody” legislation passed against them – rather than to work for a wage.34 It explains the strenuous struggle which peasants made to defend their land from expropriation, no matter how meager its size.

In England, anti-enclosure struggles began in the late 15ᵗʰ century and continued throughout the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ, when levelling the enclosing hedges became “the most common species of social protest” and the symbol of class conflict (Manning 1988: 311). Anti-enclosure riots often turned into mass uprisings. The most notorious was Kett’s Rebellion, named after its leader, Robert Kett, that took place In Norfolk in 1549. This was no small nocturnal affair. At its peak, the rebels numbered 16,000, had an artillery, defeated a government army of 12,000, and even captured Norwich, at the time the second largest city in England.35 They also drafted a program that, if realized, would have checked the advance of agrarian capitalism and eliminated all vestiges of feudal power in the country. It consisted of twenty-nine demands that Kett, a farmer and tanner, presented to the Lord Protector. The first was that “from henceforth no man shall enclose any more.” Other articles demanded that rents shouJd be reduced to the rates that had prevailed sixty-five years before, that “all freeholders and copy holders may take the profits of all commons,” and that “all bond-men may be made free, for god made all free with his precious blood sheddying” (Fletcher 1973: 142-44). These demands were put into practice. Throughout Norfolk, enclosing hedges were uprooted, and only when another government army attacked them were the rebels stopped. Thirty-five hundred were slain in the massacre that followed. Hundreds more were wounded. Ken and his brother William were hanged outside Norwich’s walls.

Anti-enclosure struggles continued, however, through the Jacobean period with a noticeable increase in the presence of women.36 During the reign of James I, about ten percent of enclosure riots included women among the rebels. Some were all female protests. In 1607, for instance, thirty-seven women, led by a “Captain Dorothy,” attacked coal miners working on what women claimed to be the village commons in Thorpe Moor (Yorkshire). Forty women went to “cast down the fences and hedges” of an enclosure in Waddingham (Lincolnshire) in 1608; and in 1609, on a manor of Dunchurch (Warwickshire) “fifteen women, including wives, widows, spinsters, unmarried daughters, and servants, took it upon themselves to assemble at night to dig up the hedges and level the ditches” (ibid.: 97). Again, at York in May 1624, women destroyed an enclosure and went to prison for it – they were said to have “enjoyed tobacco and ale after their feat” (Fraser 1984: 225-26). Then, in 1641, a crowd that broke into an enclosed fen at Buckden consisted mainly of women aided by boys (ibid.). And these were just a few instances of a confrontation in which women holding pitchforks and scythes resisted the fencing of the land or the draining of the fens when their livelihood was threatened.

This strong female presence has been attributed to the belief that women were above the law, being “covered” legally by their husbands. Even men, we are told, dressed like women to pull up the fences. But this explanation should not be taken too far. For the government soon eliminated this privilege, and started arresting and imprisoning women involved in anti-enclosure riots.37 Moreover, we should not assume that women had no stake of their own in the resistance to land expropriation. The opposite was the case.

As with the commutation, women were those who suffered most when the land was lost and the village community fell apart. Part of the reason is that it was far more difficult for them to become vagabonds or migrant workers, for a nomadic life exposed them to male violence, especially at a time when misogyny was escalating. Women were also less mobile on account of pregnancies and the caring of children, a fact overlooked by scholars who consider the flight from servitude (through migration and other forms of nomadism) the paradigmatic forms of struggle. Nor could women become soldiers for pay, though some joined armies as cooks, washers, prostitutes, and wives;38 but by the 17ᵗʰ century this option too vanished, as armies were further regimented and the crowds of women that used to follow them were expelled fiom the battlefields (Kriedte 1983: 55).

Women were also more negatively impacted by the enclosures because as soon as land was privatized and monetary relations began to dominate economic life, they found it more difficult than men to support themselves, being increasingly confined to reproductive labor at the very time when this work was being completely devalued. As we will see, this phenomenon, which has accompanied the shift from a subsistence to a money-economy, in every phase of capitalist development, can be attributed to several factors. It is clear, however, that the commercialization of economic life provided the material conditions for it.

With the demise of the subsistence economy that had prevailed in pre-capitalist Europe, the unity of production and reproduction which has been typical of all societies based on production-for-use came to an end, as these activities became the carriers of different social relations and were sexually differentiated. In the new monetary regime, only production-for-market was defined as a value-creating activity, whereas the reproduction of the worker began to be considered as valueless from an economic viewpoint and even ceased to be considered as work. Reproductive work continued to be paid – though at the lowest rates – when performed for the master class or outside the home. But the economic importance of the reproduction of labor-power carried out in the home, and its function in the accumulation of capital became invisible, being mystified as a natural vocation and labelled “women’s labor.” In addition, women were excluded from many waged occupations and, when they worked for a wage, they earned a pittance compared to the average male wage.

(Entitled “Women and Knaves,” this picture by Hans Sebald Beham (c. 1530) shows the train of women that used the follow the armies even to the battlefield. The women, including wives and prostitutes, took care of the reproduction of the soldiers. Notice the woman wearing a muzzling device.)

These historic changes – that peaked in the 19ᵗʰ century with the creation of the full-time housewife – redefined women’s position in society and in relation to men. The sexual division of labor that emerged from it not only fixed women to reproductive work, but increased their dependence on men, enabling the state and employers to use the male wage as a means to command women’s labor. In this way, the separation of commodity production from the reproduction of labor-power also made possible the development of a specifically capitalist use of the wage and of the markets as means for the accumuIation of unpaid labor.

Most importantly, the separation of production from reproduction created a class of proletarian women who were as dispossessed as men but, unlike their male relatives, in a society that was becoming increasingly monetarized, had almost no access to wages, thus being forced into a condition of chronic poverty, economic dependence, and invisibility as workers.

As we will see, the devaluation and feminization of reproductive labor was a disaster also for male workers, for the devaluation of reproductive labor inevitably devalued its product: labor-power. But there is no doubt that in the “transition from feudalism to capitalism” women suffered a unique process of social degradation that was fundamental to the accumulation of capital and has remained so ever since.

Also in view of these developments, we cannot say, then, that the separation of the worker from the land and the advent of a money-economy realized the struggle which the medieval serfs had fought to free themselves from bondage. It was not the workers – male or female – who were liberated by land privatization. What was “liberated” was capital, as the land was now “free” to function as a means of accumulation and exploitation, rather than as a means of subsistence. Liberated were the landlords, who now could unload onto the workers most of the cost of their reproduction, giving them access to some means of subsistence only when directly employed. When work would not be available or would not be sufficiently profitable, as in times of commercial or agricultural crisis, workers, instead, could be laid off and left to starve.

The separation of workers from their means of subsistence and their new dependence on monetary relations also meant that the real wage could now be cut and women’s labor could be further devalued with respect to men’s through monetary manipulation. It is not a coincidence, then, that as soon as land began to be privatized, the prices of foodstuffs, which for two centuries had stagnated, began to rise.39


19. On the changes in the nature of war in early modern Europe see, Cunningham and Grell (2000), 95-102; Kallter (1998). Cunningham and Grell write that: “ln the 1490s a large army would have consisted of 20,000 men, by the 1550s it would have been twice that, while towards the end of the Thirty Years War the leading European states would have field armies of close to 150,000 men” (2000: 95).

20. Albrecht Dürer's engraving was not the only representation of the “Four Horsemen.” We have also one by Lucas Cranach (1522) and by Mattheus Merian (1630). Representations of battlefields, portraying slaughters of soldiers and civilians, villages in flames, rows of hanging bodies, are too numerous to mention. War is possibly the main theme of 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century painting, leaking into every representation, even those ostensibly devoted to sacred subjects.


21. This outcome reveals the two souls of the Reformation: a popular one and elitist one, which very soon split along opposite lines. While the conservative side of the Reformation stressed the virtues of work and wealch accumulation, the popular side demanded a society run by “godly love” equality, and communal solidarity. On the class dimensions of the Reformation see Henry Heller (1986) and Po-Chia Hsia (1988).

22. Hoskins (1976), 121-123. In England the pre-Reformation Church had owned twenty-five to thirty per cent of the country’s real property. Of this land, Henry VIII sold sixty per cent (Hoskins 1976: 121-123). Those who most gained from the confiscation and more eagerly enclosed the newly acquired lands were not the old nobility, nor those who depended on the commons for their keep, but the gentry and the “new men,” especially the lawyers and the merchants, who were the face of greed in the peasants’ imagination (Cornwall 1977: 22-28). It was against these “new men” that the peasants were prone to vent their anger. A fine snapshot of the winners and losers in the great transfer of land produced by the English Reformation is Table 15 in Kriedte (1983: 60), showing that twenty to twenty-five per cent of the land lost to the Church became the gentry’s property. Following are the most relevant columns.


GROUP | 1436 excl. Wales | 1690

Great owners | 15-20 | 15-20

Gentry | 25 | 45-50

Yeomen/freeholders | 20 | 25-33

Church and Crown | 25-33 | 5-10

On the consequences of the Reformation in England for land tenure, see also Christopher Hill who writes: “We need not idealize the abbeys as lenient landlords to admit some truth in contemporary allegations that the new purchasers shortened leases, racked rents and evicted tenants. ... ‘Do ye not know,’ said John Palmer to a group of copy-holders he was evicting, ‘that the king’s grace hath put down all houses of monks, friars, and nuns, therefore now is the time come that we gentlemen will pull down the houses of such poor knaves as yet be?’” (Hill 1958: 41).

23. See Midnight Notes (1990); see also The Ecologist (1993); and the ongoing debate on the “enclosures” and the “commons” in The Commoner, especially n. 2, (September 2001), and n.3., January 2002).

24. Primarily, “enclosure” meant “surrounding a piece of land with hedges, ditches, other barriers to the free passage of men and animals, the hedge being the mark of exclusive ownership and land occupation. Hence, by enclosure, collective land use, usually accompanied by some degree of communal land ownership, would be abolished, superseded by individual ownership and separate occupation” (G. Slater 1968: 1-2). There were a variety of ways to abolish collective land use in the 15ᵗʰ and 16ᵗʰ centuries. The legal paths were (a) the purchase by one person of all tenements and their appurtenant common rights;” (b) the issuing by the King of a special license to enclose, or the passage of an enclosure act by the Parliament; (c) an agreement between the landlord and tenants, embodied in a Chancery decree; (d) the making of partial enclosures of waste by the lords, under the provisions of the Statutes of Merton (1235) and Westminister (1285). Roger Manning notes, however, that these “legal methods ... frequently concealed the use of force, fraud,­ intimidation against the tenants” (Manning 1998: 25). E. D. Fryde, too, writes that “{p}rolonged harassment of tenants combined with threats of evictions at the slightest legal opportunity” and physical violence were used to bring about mass evictions “particularly during the disorder years 1450-85 {i.e., the War of Roses}” (Fryde 1996: 186). Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) expressed the anguish and desolation that these mass expulsions produced when he spoke of sheep which had become so great devourers and so wild that “they eat up and swallow the very men themselves.” “Sheep” – he added – that “consume and destroy and devour whole fields, houses and cities.”

25. In The Invention of Capitalism (2000), Michael Perelman has emphasized the importance of “customary rights” (e.g., hunting) noting how they were often of vital significance, making the difference between survival and total destitution (pp. 38ff.).

26. Garret Hardin’s essay on the “tragedy of the commons” (1968) was one of the mainstays in the ideological campaign in support of land privatization in the 1970s. The “tragedy,” in Hardin’s version, is the inevitability of Hobbesian egoism as a determinant of human behavior. In his view, in a hypothetical common, each herdsman wants to maximize his gain regardless of the implications of his action for the other herdsmen, so that “ruin is the destination to which all men rush, each pursuing his best interest” (In Baden and Noonan, eds., 1998: 8-9).

27. The “modernization” defense of the enclosures has a long history, but it has received new energy from neo-Iiberalism. Its main advocate has been the World Bank, which has often demanded that governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania privatize communal lands as a condition for receiving loans (World Bank 1989). A classic defense of the productivity gains derived from enclosure is found in Harriett Bradley (1968, originally published in 1918). The more recent academic literature has taken a more even-handed “costs/gains” approach, exemplified by the works of G. E. Mingay (1997) and Robert S. Duplessis (1997: 65-70). The battle concerning the enclosures has now crossed the disciplinary boundaries and is being debated also among literary scholars. An example of disciplinary border-crossing is Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, eds., Enclosure Acts. Sexuality, Property and Culture in Early Modern England (1994) – especially the essays by James R. Siemon, “Landlord Not King: Agrarian Change and Interarticulation;” and William C. Carroll, “‘The Nursery of Beggary’: Enclosure, Vagrancy, and Sedition in the Tudor-Stuart Period,” William C. Carroll has found that there was a lively defense of enclosures and critique of the commons in the Tudor period carried out by the spokesmen of the enclosing class. According co this discourse, the enclosures encouraged private enterprise, which in turn increased agricultural productivity, while the commons were the “nurseries and receptacles of thieves, rogues and beggars” (Carroll 1994: 37-38).

28. DeVries (1976), 42-43; Hoskins (1976), 11-12.

29. The commons were the sites of popular festivals and other collective activities, like sports, games, and meetings. When they were fenced off, the sociality that had characterized the village community was severely undermined. Among the rituals that came to an end was “Rogationtide perambulation,” a yearly procession among the fields meant to bless the future crops, that was prevented by the hedging of the fields (Underdown 1985: 81).

30. On the breaking down of social cohesion see (among others) David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660 (1985), especially Chapter 3, which also describes the efforts made by the older nobility to distinguish itself from the nouveaux riches.

31. Kriedte (1983), 55; Briggs (1998), 289-316.

32. Cottage industry was an extension of the manorial, rural industry, reorganized by the capitalist merchants to take advantage of the large pool of labor liberated by the enclosures. With this move the merchants aimed to circumvent the high wages and power of the urban guilds. This is how the putting-out system was born – a system by which the capitalist merchants distributed among rural families wool or cotton to spin or weave, and often also the instruments of work, and then picked up the finished product. The importance of the put-out system and cottage industry for the development of British industry can be deduced from the fact that the entire textile industry, the most important sector in the first phase of capitalist development, was organized in this fashion. The cottage industry had two main advantages for employers: it prevented the danger of ‘combinations’; and it cheapened the cost of labor, since its home-based organization provided the workers with free domestic services and the cooperation of their children and wives, who were treated as helpers and paid low “auxiliary” wages.

33. Wage labor was so identified with slavery that the Levellers excluded waged workers from the vote, not considering them sufficiently independent from their employers to be able to cast a vote. “Why should a free person make oneself a slave?” asked The Fox, a character in Edmund Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale (1591). In turn Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, declared that it did not make any difference whether one lived under one’s enemy or under one’s brother if one worked for a wage (Hill 1975).

34. Herzog (1989), 45-52. The literature on vagabonds is vast. Among the most important on this topic are A. Beier (1974) and B. Geremek’s Poverty, A History (1994).

35. Fletcher (1973), 64-77; Cornwall (1977), 137-241; Beer (1982), 82-139. At the beginning of the 16ᵗʰ century many enclosure riots involved the lesser gentry who used the popular hatred for enclosures, engrossments, and emparkments to settle their feuds with their betters. But, after 1549, “the gentry’s leadership in enclosure disputes diminished and small-holders or artisans and cottagers were more likely to take the initiative in heading agrarian protests” (Manning 1988: 312). Manning describes the typical victim of an enclosure riot as “the outsider.” “Merchants attempting to buy their way into the landed gentry were particularly vulnerable to enclosure riots, as were farmers of leases. New owners and farmers were the victims of enclosure riots in 24 of the 75 Star Chamber cases. A closely-related category consists of six absentee gentlemen” (Manning 1988: 50).

36. Manning (1988), 96-97, 114-116, 281; Mendelson and Crawford (1998).

37. The increasing presence of women in anti-enclosure riots was influenced by a popular belief that women were “lawless” and could level hedges with impunity (Mendelson and Crawford 1998: 386-387). But the Court of the Star Chamber went out of its way to disabuse people of this belief. In 1605, one year after James I’s witchcraft law, it ruled that “if women offend in trespass, riot or otherwise, and an action is brought against them and their husbands, they {the husbands} shall pay the fines and damages, notwithstanding the trespass or the offense is committed without the privity of the husbands” (Manning 1988: 98).

38. On this subject see, among others, Maria Mies (1986).

39. By 1600, real wages in Spain had lost thirty percent of their purchasing power with respect to what they had been in 1511 (Hamilton 1965: 280). On the Price Revolution, see in particular Earl J. Hamilton’s now classic work, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650 (1965), which studies the impact of the America bullion on it; David Hackett Fischer The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythms of History (1996), which studies price hikes from the Middle Ages to the present – in particular Chapter 2 (pp. 66-113); and Peter Ramsey’s edited volume, The Price Revolution in Sixteenth Century England (1971).
The Price Revolution and the Pauperization of the European Working Class

This “inflationary” phenomenon, which due to its devastating social consequences has been named the Price Revolution (Ramsey 1971), was attributed by contemporaries and later economists (e.g., Adam Smith) to the arrival of gold and silver from America, “pouring into Europe in a mammoth stream” (Hamilton 1965: vii). But it has been noted that prices had been rising before these metals started circulating through the European markets.40 Moreover, in themselves, gold and silver are not capital, and could have been put to other uses, e.g., to make jewelry or golden cupolas or to embroider clothes. If they functioned as price-regulating devices, capable of turning even wheat into a precious commodity, this was because they were planted into a developing capitalist world, in which a growing percentage of the population – one-third in England (LasIett 1971: 53) – had no access to land and had to buy the food that they had once produced, and because the ruling class had learned to use the magical power of money to cut labor costs. In other words, prices rose because of the development of a national and international market-system encouraging the export-import of agricultural products, and because merchants hoarded goods to sell them later at a higher price. In September 1565, in Antwerp, “while the poor were literally starving in the streets,” a warehouse collapsed under the weight of the grain packed in it (Hackett Fischer 1996: 88).

It was under these circumstances that the arrival of the American treasure triggered a massive redistribution of wealth and a new proletarianization process.41 Rising prices ruined the small farmers, who had to give up their land to buy grain or bread when the harvests could not feed their families, and created a class of capitalist entrepreneurs, who accumulated fortunes by investing in agriculture and money-lending, at a time when having money was for many people a matter of life or death.42

The Price Revolution also triggered a historic collapse in the real wage comparable to that which has occurred in our time throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in the countries “structurally adjusted” by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. By 1600, real wages in Spain had lost thirty percent of their purchasing power with respect to what they had been in 1511 (Hamilton 1965: 280), and the collapse was just as sharp in other countries. While the price of food went up eight times, wages increased only by three times (Hackett Fischer 1996: 74). This was not the work of the invisible hand of the market, but the product of a state policy that prevented laborers from organizing, while giving merchants the maximum freedom with regard to the pricing and movement of goods. Predictably, within a few decades, the real wage lost two-thirds of its purchasing power, as shown by the changes that intervened in the daily wages of an English carpenter, expressed in kilograms of grain, between the 14ᵗʰ and 18ᵗʰ century (Slicher Van Bath 1963: 327):


1351-1400 | 121.8

1401-1450 | 155.1

1451 -1500 | 143.5

1501-1550 | 122.4

1551-1600 | 83.0

1601-1650 | 48.3

1651-1700 | 74.1

1701-1750 | 94.6

1751-1800 | 79.6

It took centuries for wages in Europe to return to the level they had reached in the late Middle Ages. Things deteriorated to the point that, in England, by 1550, male artisans had to work forty weeks to earn the same income that, at the beginning of the century, they had been able to obtain in fifteen weeks. In France, {see graph, next page} wages dropped by sixty percent between 1470 and 1570 (Hackett Fischer 1996: 78).43 The wage collapse was especially disastrous for women. In the 14ᵗʰ century, they had received half the pay of a man for the same task; but by the mid-16ᵗʰ century they were receiving only one-third of the reduced male wage, and could no longer support themselves by wage-work, neither in agriculture nor in manufacturing, a fact undoubtedly responsible for the massive spread of prostitution in this period.44 What followed was the absolute impoverishment of the European working class, a phenomenon so widespread and general that, by 1550 and long after, workers in Europe were referred to as simply “the poor.”

Evidence for this dramatic impoverishment is the change that occurred in the workers’ diets. Meat disappeared from their tables, except for a few scraps of lard, and so did beer and wine, salt and olive oil (Braudel 1973: 127ff; Le Roy Ladurie 1974). From the 16ᵗʰ to the 18ᵗʰ centuries, the workers’ diets consisted essentially of bread, the main expense in their budget. This was a historic setback (whatever we may think of dietary norms) compared to the abundance of meat that had typified the late Middle Ages. Peter Kriedte writes that at that time, the “annual meat consumption had reached the figure of 100 kilos per person, an incredible quantity even by today’s standards. Up to the 19ᵗʰ century this figure declined to less than twenty kilos” (Kriedte 1983: 52). Braudel too speaks of the end of “carnivorous Europe,” summoning as a witness the Swabian Heinrich Muller who, in 1550, commented that,

...in the past they ate differently at the peasant’s house. Then, there was meat and food in profusion every day; tables at village fairs and feasts sank under their load. Today, everything has truly changed. For some years, in fact, what a calamitous time, what high prices! And the food of the most comfortably off peasants is almost worse than that of day-labourers and valets previously” (Braudel 1973: 130).

Not only did meat disappear, but food shortages became common, aggravated in times of harvest failure, when the scanty grain reserves sent the price of grain sky-high, condemning city dwellers to starvation (Braudel 1966, Vol. I: 328). This is what occurred in the famine years of the 1540s and 1550s, and again in the decades of the 1580s and 1590s, which were some of the worst in the history of the European proletariat, coinciding with widespread unrest and a record number of witch-trials. But malnutrition was rampant also in normal times, so that food acquired a high symbolic value as a marker of rank. The desire for it among the poor reached epic proportions, inspiring dreams of Pantagruelian orgies, like those described by Rabelais in his Gargantua and Pantagruel (1552), and causing nightmarish obsessions, such as the conviction (spread among eastern Italian farmers) that witches roamed the countryside at night to feed upon cattle (Mazzali 1988: 73).

(Price Revolution and the Fall of the Real Wage, 1480-1640. The Price Revolution triggered a historic collapse in the real wage. Within a few decades, the real wage lost two-thirds of its purchasing power. The real wage did not return to the level it had reached in the 15ᵗʰ century until the 19ᵗʰ century (Phelps-Brown and Hopkins, 1981).)

(The social consequences of the Price Revolution are revealed by these charts, which indicate, respectively, the rise in the price of grain in England between 1490 and 1650, the concomitant rise in prices and property crimes in Essex (England) between 1566 and 1602, and the population decline measured in millions in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain between 1500 and 1750 (Hackett Fischer, 1996).)

Indeed, the Europe that was preparing to become a Promethean world-mover, presumably taking humankind to new technological and cultural heights, was a place where people never had enough to eat. Food became an object of such intense desire that it was believed that the poor sold their souls to the devil to get their hands on it. Europe was also a place where, in times of bad harvests, country-folk fed upon wild roots, or the barks of trees, and multitudes roved the countryside weeping and wailing, “so hungry that they would devour the beans in the fields” (Le Roy Ladurie 1974); or they invaded the cities to benefit from grain distributions or to attack the houses and granaries of the rich who, in turn, rushed to get arms and shut the city gates to keep the starving out (Heller 1986: 56-63).

That the transition to capitalism inaugurated a long period of starvation for workers in Europe – which plausibly ended because of the economic expansion produced by colonization – is also demonstrated by the fact that, while in the 14ᵗʰ and 15ᵗʰ centuries, the proletarian struggle had centered around the demand for “liberty” and less work, by the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ, it was mostly spurred by hunger, taking the form of assaults on bakeries and granaries, and of riots against the export of local crops.45 The authorities described those who participated in these attacks as “good for nothing” or “poor” and “humble people,” but most were craftsmen, living, by this time, from hand to mouth.

It was the women who usually initiated and led the food revolts. Six of the thirty-one food riots in 17ᵗʰ-century France studied by Ives-Marie Bercé were made up solely of women. In the others the female presence was so conspicuous that Bercé calls them “women's riots.”46 Commenting on this phenomenon, with reference to 18ᵗʰ-century England, Sheila Rowbotham concluded that women were prominent in this type of protest because of their role as their families’ caretakers. But women were also most ruined by high prices for, having less access to money and employment than men, they were more dependent on cheap food for survival. This is why, despite their subordinate status, they took quickly to the streets when food prices went up, or when rumor spread that the grain supplies were being removed from town. This is what happened at the time of the Cordoba uprising of 1652, which started “early in the morning ... when a poor woman went weeping through the streets of the poor quarter, holding the body of her son who had died of hunger” (Kamen 1971: 364). The same occurred in Montpellier in 1645, when women took to the streets “to protect their children from starvation” (ibid.: 356). In France, women besieged the bakeries when they became convinced that grain was to be embezzled, or found out that the rich had bought the best bread and the remaining was lighter or more expensive. Crowds of poor women would then gather at the bakers’ stalls, demanding bread and charging the bakers with hiding their supplies. Riots broke out also in the squares where grain markets were held, or along the routes taken by the carts with the corn to be exported, and “at the river banks where ... boatmen could be seen loading the sacks.” On these occasions the rioters ambushed the carts ... with pitchforks and sticks ... the men carrying away the sacks, the women gathering as much grain as they could in their skirts” (Bercé: 1990: 171-73).

The struggle for food was fought also by other means, such as poaching, stealing from one’s neighbors’ fields or homes, and assaults on the houses of the rich. In Troyes in 1523 rumor had it that the poor had put the houses of the rich on fire, preparing to invade them (Heller 1986: 55-56). At Malines, in the Low Countries, the houses of speculators were marked by angry peasants with blood (Hackett Fischer 1996: 88). Not surprisingly, “food crimes” loom large in the disciplinary procedures of the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries. Exemplary is the recurrence of the theme of the “diabolical banquet” in the witch-trials, suggesting that feasting on roasted mutton, white bread, and wine was now considered a diabolic act in the case of the “common people.” But the main weapons available to the poor in their struggle for survival were their own famished bodies, as in times of famine hordes of vagabonds and beggars surrounded the better off, half-dead of hunger and disease, grabbing their arms, exposing their wounds to them and, forcing them to live in a state of constant fear at the prospect of both contamination and revolt. “You cannot walk down a street or stop in a square” – a Venetian man wrote in the mid-16ᵗʰ century – “without multitudes surrounding you to beg for charity: you see hunger written on their faces, their eyes like gemless rings, the wretchedness of their bodies with skins shaped only by bones” (ibid.: 88). A century later, in Florence, the scene was the same. “{It} was impossible to hear Mass,” one G. Balducci complained, in April 1650, “so much was one importuned during the service by wretched people naked and covered with sores” (Braudel 1966, Vol. II: 734-35).47

(Family of vagabonds. Engraving by Lucas van Leyden, 1520.)

The State Intervention in the Reproduction of Labor: Poor Relief, and the Criminalization of the Working Class

The struggle for food was not the only front in the battle against the spread of capitalist relations. Everywhere masses of people resisted the destruction of their former ways of existence, fighting against land privatization, the abolition of customary rights, the imposition of new taxes, wage-dependence, and the continuous presence of armies in their neighborhoods, which was so hated that people rushed to close the gates of their towns to prevent soldiers from settling among them.

In France, one thousand “emotions” (uprisings) occurred between the 1530s and 1670s, many involving entire provinces and requiring the intervention of troops (Goubert 1986: 205). England, Italy, and Spain present a similar picture,48 indicating that the pre-capitalist world of the village, which Marx dismissed under the rubric of “rural idiocy,” could produce as high a level of struggle as any the industrial proletariat has waged.

In the Middle Ages, migration, vagabondage, and the rise of “crimes against property” were part of the resistance to impoverishment and dispossession; these phenomena now took on massive proportions. Everywhere – if we give credit to the complaints of the contemporary authorities – vagabonds were swarming, changing cities, crossing borders, sleeping in the haystacks or crowding at the gates of towns – a vast humanity involved in a diaspora of its own, that for decades escaped the authorities’ control. Six thousand vagabonds were reported in Venice alone in 1545. “In Spain vagrants cluttered the road, stopping at every town” (Braudel, Vol. II: 740).49 Starting with England, always a pioneer in these matters, the state passed new, far harsher anti-vagabond laws prescribing enslavement and capital punishment in cases of recidivism. But repression was not effective and the roads of 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century Europe remained places of great (com)motion and encounters. Through them passed heretics escaping persecution, discharged soldiers, journeymen and other “humble folk” in search of employment, and then foreign artisans, evicted peasants, prostitutes, hucksters, petty thieves, professional beggars. Above all, through the roads of Europe passed the tales, stories, and experiences of a developing proletariat. Meanwhile, the crime rates also escalated, in such proportions that we can assume that a massive reclamation and reappropriation of the stolen communal wealth was underway.50

Today, these aspects of the transition to capitalism may seem (for Europe at least) things of the past or – as Marx put it in the Grundrisse (1973: 459) – “historical preconditions” of capitalist development, to be overcome by more mature forms of capitalism. But the essential similarity between these phenomena and the social consequences of the new phase of globalization that we are witnessing tells us otherwise. Pauperization, rebellion, and the escalation of “crime” are structural elements of capitalist accumulation as capitalism must strip the work-force from its means of reproduction to impose its own rule.

(Vagrant being whipped through the streets.)

That in the industrializing regions of Europe, by the 19ᵗʰ century, the most extreme forms of proletarian misery and rebellion had disappeared is not a proof against this claim. Proletarian misery and rebellions did not come to an end; they only lessened to the degree that the super-exploitation of workers had been exported, through the institutionalization of slavery, at first, and later through the continuing expansion of colonial domination.

As for the “transition” period, this remained in Europe a time of intense social conflict, providing the stage for a set of state initiatives that, judging from their effects, had three main objectives: (a) to create a more disciplined work-force; (b) to diffuse social protest; and (c) to fix workers to the jobs forced upon them. Let us look at them in turn.

In pursuit of social discipline, an attack was launched against all forms of collective sociality and sexuality including sports, games, dances, ale-wakes, festivals, and other group-rituals that had been a source of bonding and solidarity among workers. It was sanctioned by a deluge of bills: twenty-five, in England, just for the regulation of ale-houses, in the years between 1601 and 1606 (Underdown 1985: 47-48). Peter Burke (1978), in his work on the subject, has spoken of it as a campaign against “popular culture.” But we can see that what was at stake was the desocialization or decollectivization of the reproduction of the work-force, as well as the attempt to impose a more productive use of leisure time. This process, in England, reached its climax with the coming to power of the Puritans in the aftermath of the Civil War (1642-49), when the fear of social indiscipline prompted the banning of all proletarian gatherings and merrymaking. But the “moral reformation” was equally intense in non-Protestant areas where, in the same period, religious processions were replacing the dancing and singing that had been held in and out of the churches. Even the individual’s relation with God was privatized: in Protestant areas, with the institution of a direct relationship between the individual and the divinity; in the Catholic areas, with the introduction of individual confession. The church itself, as a community center, ceased to host any social activity other than those addressed to the cult. As a result, the physical enclosure operated by land privatization and the hedging of the commons was amplified by a process of social enclosure, the reproduction of workers shifting from the openfield to the home, from the community to the family, from the public space (the common, the church) to the private.51

Secondly, in the decades between 1530 and 1560, a system of public assistance was introduced in at least sixty European towns, both by initiative of the local municipalities and by direct intervention of the central state.52 Its precise goals are still debated. While much of the literature on the topic sees the introduction of public assistance as a response to a humanitarian crisis that jeopardized social control, in his massive study of coerced labor, the French Marxist scholar Yann Moulier Boutang insists that its primary objective was “The Great Fixation” of the proletariat, that is, the attempt to prevent the flight of labor.53

In any event, the introduction of public assistance was a turning point in the state relation between workers and capital and the definition of the function of the state. It was the first recognition of the unsustainability of a capitalist system ruling exclusively by means of hunger and terror. It was also the first step in the reconstruction of the state as the guarantor of the class relation and as the chief supervisor of the reproduction and disciplining of the work-force.

Antecedents for this function can be found in the 14ᵗʰ century, when faced with the generalization of the anti-feudal struggle, the state had emerged as the only agency capable of confronting a working class that was regionally unified, armed, and no longer confined in its demands to the political economy of the manor. In 1351, with the passing of the Statute of Laborers in England, which fixed the maximum wage, the state had formally taken charge of the regulation and repression of labor, which the local lords were no longer capable of guaranteeing. But it was with the introduction of public assistance that the State began to claim “ownership” of the work-force, and a capitalist “division of labor” was instituted within the ruling class, enabling employers to relinquish any responsibility for the reproduction of workers, in the certainty that the state would intervene, either with the carrot or with the stick, to address the inevitable crises. With this innovation, a leap occurred also in the management of social reproduction, resulting in the introduction of demographic recording (census-taking, recording of mortality, natality, marriage rates) and the application of accounting to social relations. Exemplary is the work of the administrators of the Bureau de Pauvres in Lyon (France), who by the end of the 16ᵗʰ century had learned to calculate the number of the poor, assess the amount of food needed by each child or adult, and keep track of the deceased, to make sure that nobody could claim assistance in the name of a dead person (Zemon Davis 1968: 244-46).

Along with this new “social science,” an international debate also developed on the administration of public assistance anticipating the contemporary debate on welfare. Should only those unable to work, described as the “deserving poor,” be supported, or should “able-bodied” laborers unable to find a job also be given help? And how much or how little should they be given, so as not to be discouraged from looking for work? These questions were crucial from the viewpoint of social discipline, as a key objective of public aid was to tie workers to their jobs. But, on these matters a consensus could rarely be reached.

While humanist reformers like Juan Luis Vives54 and spokesmen for the wealthy burghers recognized the economic and disciplinary benefits of a more liberal and centralized dispensation of charity (not exceeding the distribution of bread, however), part of the clergy strenuously opposed the ban on individual donations. But, across differences of systems and opinions, assistance was administered with such stinginess that it generated as much conflict as appeasement. Those assisted resumed the humiliating rituals imposed on them, like wearing the “mark of infamy” (previously reserved for lepers and Jews), or (in France) participating in the annual processions of the poor, in which they had to parade singing hymns and holding candles; and they vehemently protested when the alms were not promptly given or were inadequate to their needs. In response, in some French towns, gibbets were erected at the time of food distributions or when the poor were asked to work in exchange for the food they received (Zemon Davis, 1968: 249). In England, as the 16ᵗʰ century progressed, receipt of public aid – also for children and the elderly – was made conditional on the incarceration of the recipients in “work-houses,” where they became the experimental subjects for a variety of work-schemes.55 Consequently, the attack on workers, that had begun with the enclosures and the Price Revolution, in the space of a century, led to the criminalization of the working class, that is, the formation of a vast proletariat either incarcerated in the newly constructed work-houses and correction-houses, or seeking its survival outside the law and living in open antagonism to the state – always one step away from the whip and the noose.

From the viewpoint of the formation of a laborious work-force, this was a decisive failure, and the constant preoccupation with the question of social discipline in 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century political circles indicates that the contemporary statesmen and entrepreneurs were keenly aware of it. Moreover, the social crisis that this general state of rebelliousness provoked was aggravated in the second half of the 16ᵗʰ century by a new economic contraction, in great part caused by the dramatic population decline that occurred in Spanish America after the Conquest, and the shrinking of the colonial economies.


40. Braudel (1966), Vol. 1, 517-524.

41. As Peter Kriedte (1983) sums up the economic developments of this period: “The crisis sharpened the differentials in income and property. Pauperization and proletarianization were paralleled by an increased accumulation of wealth. ...Work on Chippenham in Cambridgeshire has shown that the bad harvests of {the late 16ᵗʰ and early 17ᵗʰ centuries} resulted in a decisive shift. Between 1544 and 1712 the medium-sized farms all but disappeared. At the same time the proportion of properties of 90 acres or more rose from 3% to 14%; households without land increased from 32% to 63%” (Kriedte 1983: 54-55).

42. Wallerstein (1974), 83; Le Roy Ladurie (1928-1929). The growing interest of capitalist entrepreneurs for money-lending was perhaps the motivation behind the expulsion of the Jews from most cities and countries of Europe in the 15ᵗʰ and 16ᵗʰ centuries – Parma (1488), Milan (1489), Geneva (1490), Spain (1492), and Austria (1496). Expulsions and pogroms continued for a century. Until the tide was turned by Rudolph II in 1577, it was illegal for Jews to live in most of Western Europe. As soon as money-lending became a lucrative business, this activity, previously declared unworthy of a Christian, was rehabilitated, as shown by this dialogue between a peasant and a wealthy burgher, written anonymously in Germany around 1521:

Peasant: What brings me to you? Why, l would like to see how you spend your time.

Burgher: How should I spend my time? I sit here counting my money, can't you see?

Peasant: Tell me, burgher, who gave you so much money that you spend all your time counting it?

Burgher: You want to know who gave me my money? I shall tell you. A peasant comes knocking at my door and asks me to lend him ten or twenty gulden. I inquire of him whether he owns a pIot of good pasture land or a nice field for plowing. He says: ‘Yes, burgher, I have a good meadow and a fine field, worth a hundred gulden the two of them.’ I reply: ‘Excellent! Pledge your meadow and your field as collateral, and if you will undertake to pay one gulden a year as interest, you can have your loan of twenty gulden: Happy to hear the good news, the peasant replies: ‘I gladly give you my pledge.’ ‘But I must tell you,’ I rejoin, ‘that if ever you fail to pay your interest on time, I will take possession of your land and make it my property.’ And this does not worry the peasant, he proceeds to assign his pasture and field to me as his pledge. I lend him the money and he pays interest punctually for one year or two; then comes a bad harvest and soon he is behind in his payment. I confiscate his land, evict him and meadow and field are mine. And I do this not only with peasants but with artisans as well. If a tradesman owns a good house I lend him a sum of money on it, and before long the house belongs to me. In this way I acquire much property and wealth, which is why I spend all my time counting my money.

Peasant: And I thought only the Jews practiced usury! Now I hear that Christians do it, too.

Burgher: Usury? Who is talking about usury? Nobody here practices usury. What the debtor pays is interest (G. Strauss: 110-111).

43. With reference to Germany, Peter Kriedte writes that: “Recent research has shown that a building worker in Augsburg {in Bavaria} was able adequately to maintain his wife and two children from his annual income during the first three decades of the 16ᵗʰ century. Thenceforth his living standard began to fall. Between 1566 and 1575 and from 1585 to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War his wages could no longer pay for the subsistence minimun of his family” (Kriedte 1983: 51-52). On the impoverishment of the Europen working class due to the enclosures and the Price Revolution see also C. Lis & H. Soly (1979), 72-79. As they write, in England “between 1500 and 1600 grain prices rose sixfold, while wages rose threefold. Not surprisingly, workers and cottars were but ‘house beggars’ for Francis Bacon.” In the same period, in France, the purchasing power of cottars and waged workers fell by forty five percent. “In New Castile... wage labour and poverty were considered synonymous.” (ibid.: 72-4).

44. On the growth of prostitution in the 16ᵗʰ century see, Nickie Roberts, Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society (1992).

45. Manning (1988); Fletcher (1973); Cornwall (1977); Beer (1982); Bercé (1990); Lombardini (1983).

46. Kamen (1971), Bercé (1990), 169-179; Underdown (1985). As David Underdown notes:

“The prominent role played by female {food} rioters has often been noted. At Southampton in 1608 a group of women refused to wait while the corporation debated what to do about a ship being loaded with grain for London; they boarded it and seized the cargo. Women were thought to be the likely rioters in the incident in Weymouth in 1622, while at Dorchester in 1631 a group (some of them inmates of the workhouse) stopped a cart in the mistaken belief that it contained wheat; one of them complained of a local merchant who “did send away the best fruits of the land, as butter, cheese, wheat, etc., over the seas” (1985: 117). On women’s presence in food riots, see also Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford (1998), who write that “women played a prominent role in grain riots {in England}.” For instance, “{a}t Maldon in 1629 a crowd of over a hundred women and children boarded the ships to prevent grain from being shipped away.” They were ted by a “Captain Ann Carter, later tried and hanged” for her leading role in the protest (ibid.: 385-86).

47. In a similar vein were the comments of a physician in the Italian city of Bergamo, during the famine of 1630:

“The loathing and terror engendered by a maddened crowd of half dead people who importune all comers in the streets, in piazzas, in the churches, at street doors, so that life is intolerable, and in addition the foul stench rising from them as well as the constant spectacle of the dying ... this cannot be believed by anyone who has not experienced it” (quoted by Carlo M. Cipolla 1993: 129).

48. On 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century protest in Europe, see Henry Kamen, The Iron Century (1972), in particular Chapter 10, “Popular Rebellion. 1550-1660” (pp. 331-385). As Kamen writes, “The crisis of 1595-7 was operative throughout Europe, with repercussions in England, France, Austria, Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Probably never before in European history had so many popular rebellions coincided in time” (p. 336). There were rebellions in Naples in 1595, 1620, 1647 (ibid.: 334-35, 350, 361-63). In Spain, rebellions erupted in 1640 in Catalonia, in Grenada in 1648, in Cordova and Seville in 1652. For riots and rebellions in 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century England, see Cornwall (1977); Underdown (1985), and Manning (1988). On revolt in Spain and Italy, see also Braudel (1976, Vol. II), 738-739.

49. On vagrancy in Europe, beside Beier and Geremek, see Braudel (1976), Vol. II, 739-743; Kamen (1972), 390-394.

50. On the rise of property crimes in the wake of the Price Revolution see the Charter on p. 141 in this volume. See Richard J. Evans (1996), 35; Kamen (1972), 397-403; and Lis and Soly (1984). Lis and Soly write that “{t}he available evidence suggests that the overall crime rate did indeed rise markedly in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, especially between 1590 and 1620” (p. 218).

51. In England, among the moments of sociality and collective reproduction that were terminated due to the loss of the open fields and the commons there were the processions that were held in the spring to bless the fields – which could no longer take place once the fields were fenced off – and the dances that were held around the Maypole on May First (Underdown 1985).

52. Lis and Soly (1979), 92. On the institution of Public Assistance, see Geremek’s Poverty: A History (1994), Chapter 4: “The Reform of Charity” (pp. 142-177).

53. Yann Moulier Boutang, De L'esclavage au salariat (1998), 291-293. I only partially agree with Moulier Boutang when he claims that Poor Relief was not so much a response to the misery produced by land expropriation and price inflation, but a measure intended to prevent the flight of workers and thereby create a local labor market (1998). As already mentioned, MouIier Boutang overemphasizes the degree of mobility available to the dispossessed proletariat as he does not consider the different situation of women. Furthermore, he underplays the degree to which assistance was the result of a struggle – a struggle that cannot be reduced to the flight of labor, but included assaults, the invasion of towns by masses of starving rural people (a constant feature, in mid-16ᵗʰ-century France) and other forms of attack. It is not coincidence, in this context, that Norwich, the center of the Kett Rebellion became, shortly after its defeat, the center and the model of Poor Relief reform.

54. The Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, who was knowledgeable about the poor relief systems of the Flanders and Spain, was one of the main supporters of public charity. In his De Subvention Pauperum (1526) he argued that “secular authority rather than the Church should be responsible for the aid to the poor” (Geremek 1994: 187). He also stressed that authorities should find work for the able-bodied, insisting that “the dissolute, the crooked, the thieving and the idle should be given the hardest work, and the most badly paid, in order that their example might serve as a deterrent to others” (ibid.).

55. The main work on the rise of work-house and correction houses is Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini, The Prison and the Factory: Origins of the Penitentiary System (1981). The authors point out that the main purpose of incarceration was to break the sense of identity and solidarity of the poor. See also Geremek (1994), 206-229. On the schemes concocted by English proprietors to incarcerate the poor in their parishes, see Marx, Capital Vol. I (1909: 793). For France, see Foucault, Madness and Civilization (1965), especially Chapter 2: “The Great Confinement” (pp. 38-64).

Population Decline, Economic Crisis, and the Disciplining of Women

Within less than century from the landing of Columbus on the American continent, the colonizers’ dream of an infinite supply of labor (echoing the explorers’ estimate of an “infinite number of trees” in the forests of the Americas) was dashed.

Europeans had brought death to America. Estimates of the population collapse which affected the region in the wake of the colonial invasion vary. But scholars almost unanimously liken its effects to an “American Holocaust.” According to David Stannard (1992), in the century after the Conquest, the population declined by 75 million across South America, representing 95% of its inhabitants (1992: 268-305). This is also the estimate of André Gunder Frank who writes that “within little more than a century, Indian population declined by ninety percent and even ninety-five percent in Mexico, Peru, and some other regions” (1978: 43). In Mexico, the population fell “from 11 million in 1519 to 6.5 million in 1565 to about 2.5 million in 1600” (Wallerstein 1974: 89n). By 1580 “disease ... assisted by Spanish brutality, had killed off or driven away most of the people of the Antilles and the lowlands of New Spain, Peru and the Caribbean littoral.” (Crosby 1972: 38), and it would soon wipe out many more in Brazil. The clergy rationalized this “holocaust” as God’s punishment for the Indians’ “bestial” behavior (Williams 1986: 138); but its economic consequences were not ignored. In addition, by the 1580s, population began to decline also in western Europe, and continued to do so into the 17ᵗʰ century, reaching a peak in Germany where one third of the population was lost.56

With the exception of the Black Death (1345-1348), this was a population crisis without precedents, and statistics, as awful as they are, tell only a part of the story. Death struck at “the poor.” lt was not the rich, for the most part, who perished when the plagues or the smallpox swept the towns, but craftsmen, day-laborers and vagabonds (Kamen 1972: 32-33). They died in such numbers that their bodies paved the streets, and the authorities denounced the existence of a conspiracy, instigating the population to hunt for the malefactors. But the population decline was also blamed on low natality rates and the reluctance of the poor to reproduce themselves. To what extent this charge was justified is difficult to tell, since demographic recording, before the 17ᵗʰ century, was rather uneven. But we know that by the end of the 16ᵗʰ century the age of marriage was increasing in all social classes, and that, in the same period, the number of abandoned children – a new phenomenon – started to grow. We also have the complaints of ministers who from the pulpit charged that the youth did not marry and procreate, in order not to bring more mouths into the world than they could feed.

The peak of the demographic and economic crisis were the decades of the 1620s and 1630s. In Europe, as in the colonies, markets shrank, trade stopped, unemployment became widespread, and for a while there was the possibility that the developing capitalist economy might crash. For the integration between the colonial and European economies had reached a point where the reciprocal impact of the crisis rapidly accelerated its course. This was the first international economic crisis. It was a “General Crisis,” historians have called it (Kamen 1972: 307ff.; Hackett Fischer 1996: 91).

It is in this context that the question of the relation between labor, population, and the accumulation of wealth came to the foreground of political debate and strategy to produce the first elements of a population policy and a “bio-power” regime.57 The crudeness of the concepts applied, often confusing “populousness” with “population,” and the brutality of the means by which the state began to punish any behavior obstructing population growth, should not deceive us in this respect. It is my contention that it was the population crisis of the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, not the end of famine in Europe in the 18ᵗʰ (as Foucault has argued) that turned reproduction and population growth into state matters, as well as primary objects of intellectual discourse.58 I further argue that the intensification of the persecution of “witches,” and the new disciplinary methods that the state adopted in this period to regulate procreation and break women’s control over reproduction, are also to be traced to this crisis. The evidence for this argument is circumstantial, and it should be recognized that other factors contributed to increase the determination of the European power-structure to control more strictly women’s reproductive function. Among them, we must include the increasing privatization of property and economic relations that (within the bourgeoisie) generated a new anxiety concerning the question of paternity and the conduct of women. Similarly, in the charge that witches sacrificed children to the devil – a key theme in the “great witch-hunt” of the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries – we can read not only a preoccupation with population decline, but also the fear of the propertied classes with regard to their subordinates, particularly low-class women who, as servants, beggars or healers, had many opportunities to enter their employers’ houses and cause them harm. It cannot be a pure coincidence, however, that at the very moment when population was declining, and an ideology was forming that stressed the centrality of labor in economic life, severe penalties were introduced in the legal codes of Europe to punish women guilty of reproductive crimes.

The concomitant development of a population crisis, an expansionist population theory, and the introduction of policies promoting population growth is well-documented. By the mid-16ᵗʰ century the idea that the number of citizens determines a nation’s wealth had become something of a social axiom. “In my view,” wrote the French political thinker and demonologist Jean Bodin, “one should never be afraid of having too many subjects or too many citizens, for the strength of the commonwealth consists in men” (Commonwealth, Book VI). The Italian economist Giovanni Botero (1533-1617) had a more sophisticated approach, recognising the need for a balance between the number of people and the means of subsistence. Still, he declared that that “the greatness of a city” did not depend on its physical size or the circuit of its walls, but exclusively on the number of its residents. Henry IV’s saying that “the strength and wealth of a king lie in the number and opulence of his citizens” sums up the demographic thought of the age.

Concern with population growth is detectable also in the program of the Protestant Reformation. Dismissing the traditional Christian exaltation of chastity, the Reformers valorized marriage, sexuality, and even women because of their reproductive capacity. Woman is “needed to bring about the increase of the human race,” Luther conceded, reflecting that “whatever their weaknesses, women possess one virtue that cancels them all: they have a womb and they can give birth” (King 1991: 115).

Support for population growth climaxed with the rise of Mercantilism which made the presence of a large population the key to the prosperity and power of a nation. Mercantilism has often been dismissed by mainstream economists as a crude system of thought because of its assumption that the wealth of nations is proportional to the quantity of laborers and money available to them. The brutal means which the mercantilists applied in order to force people to work, in their hunger for labor, have contributed to their disrepute, as most economists wish to maintain the illusion that capitalism fosters freedom rather than coercion. It was a mercantilist class that invented the work-houses, hunted down vagabonds. “transported” criminals to the American colonies, and invested in the slave trade, all the while asserting the “utility of poverty” and declaring “idleness” a social plague. Thus, it has not been recognized that in the mercantilists’ theory and practice we find the most direct expression of the requirements of primitive accumulation and the first capitalist policy explicitly addressing the problem of the reproduction of the work-force. This policy, as we have seen, had an “intensive” side consisting in the imposition of a totalitarian regime using every means to extract the maximum of work from every individual, regardless of age and condition. But it also had an “extensive one” consisting in the effort to expand the size of population, and thereby the size of the army and the work-force.

As Eli Hecksher noted, “an almost fanatical desire to increase population prevailed in all countries during the period when mercantilism was at its height, in the later part of the 17ᵗʰ century” (Heckscher 1966: 158). Along with it, a new concept of human beings also took hold, picturing them as just raw materials, workers and breeders for the state (Spengler 1965: 8). But even prior to the heyday of mercantile theory, in France and England the state adopted a set of pro-natalist measures that, combined with Public Relief, formed the embryo of a capitalist reproductive policy. Laws were passed that put a premium on marriage and penalized celibacy, modeled on those adopted by the Roman Empire for this purpose. The family was given a new importance as the key institution providing for the transmission of property and the reproduction of the work-force. Simultaneously, we have the beginning of demographic recording and the intervention of the state in the supervision of sexuality, procreation, and family life.

But the main initiative that the state took to restore the desired population was the launching of a true war against women clearly aimed at breaking the control they had exercised over their bodies and reproduction. As we will see later in this volume, this war was waged primarily through the witch-hunt that literally demonized any form of birth-control and non-procreative sexuality, while charging women with sacrificing children to the devil. But it also relied on the redefinition of what constitutes a reproductive crime. Thus, starting in the mid-16ᵗʰ century, while Portuguese ships were returning from Africa with their first human cargoes, all the European goverments began to impose the severest penalties against contraception, abortion and infanticide.

This last practice had been treated with some leniency in the Middle Ages, at least in the case of poor women; but now it was turned into a capital crime, and punished more harshly than the majority of male crimes.

In sixteenth century Nuremberg, the penalty for maternal infanticide was drowning; in 1580, the year in which the severed heads of three women convicted of maternal infanticide were nailed to the scaffold for public contemplation, the penalty was changed to beheading (King 1991: 10).60

New forms of surveillance were also adopted to ensure that pregnant women did not terminate their pregnancies. In France, a royal edict of 1556 required women to register every pregnancy, and sentenced to death those whose infants died before baptism after a concealed delivery, whether or not proven guilty of any wrongdoing. Similar statutes were passed in England and Scotland in 1624 and 1690. A system of spies was also created to surveil unwed mothers and deprive them of any support. Even hosting an unmarried pregnant woman was made illegal, for fear that she might escape the public scrutiny; while those who befriended her were exposed to public criticism (Wiesner 1993: 51-52; Ozment 1983: 43).

As a consequence women began to be prosecuted in large numbers, and more were executed for infanticide in 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century Europe than for any other crime except for witchcraft, a charge that also centered on the killing of children and other violations of reproductive norms. Significantly, in the case of both infanticide and witch­craft the statutes limiting women’s legal responsibility were lifted. Thus, women walked, for the first time, into the courtrooms of Europe, in their own name as legal adults, under charge of being witches and child murderers. Also the suspicion under which midwives came in this period – leading to the entrance of the male doctor into the delivery room – stemmed more from the authorities’ fears of infanricide than from any concern with the midwives’ alleged medical incompetence.

With the marginalization of the midwife, the process began by which women lost the control they had exercised over procreation, and were reduced to a passive role in child delivery, while male doctors came to be seen as the true “givers of life” (as in the alchemical dreams of the Renaissance magicians). With this shift, a new medical practice also prevailed, one that in the case of a medical emergency prioritized the life of the fetus over that of the mother. This was in contrast to the customary birthing process which women had controlled; and indeed, for it to happen, the community of women that had gathered around the bed of the future mother had to be first expelled from the delivery room, and midwives had to be placed under the surveillance of the doctor, or had to be recruited to police women.

In France and Germany, midwives had to become spies for the state, if they wanted to continue their practice. They were expected to report all new births, discover the fathers of children born out of wedlock, and examine the women suspected of having secretly given birth. They also had to examine suspected local women for any sign of lactation when foundlings were discovered on the Church’s steps (Wiesner 1933: 52). The same type of collaboration was demanded of relatives and neighbors. In Protestant countries and towns, neighbors were supposed to spy on women and report all relevant sexual details: if a woman received a man when her husband was away, or if she entered a house with a man and shut the door behind her (Ozment 1983: 42-44). In Germany, the pro-natalist crusade reached such a point that women were punished if they did not make enough of an effort during child-delivery or showed little enthusiasm for their offspring (Rublack 1996: 92).

The outcome of these policies that lasted for two centuries (women were still being executed in Europe for infanticide at the end of the 18ᵗʰ century) was the enslavement of women to procreation. While in the Middle Ages women had been able to use various forms of contraceptives, and had exercised an undisputed control over the birthing process, from now on their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state, and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation.

In this sense, the destiny of West European women, in the period of primitive accumulation, was similar to that of female slaves in the American colonial plantations who, especially after the end of the slave-trade in 1807, were forced by their masters to become breeders of new workers. The comparison has obviously serious limits. European women were not openly delivered to sexual assaults – though proletarian women could be raped with impunity and punished for it. Nor had they to suffer the agony of seeing their children taken away and sold on the auction block. The economic profit derived from the births imposed upon them was also far more concealed. In this sense, it is the condition of the enslaved woman that most explicitly reveals the truth and the logic of capitalist accumulation. But despite the differences, in both cases, the female body was turned into an instrument for the reproduction of labor and the expansion of the work-force, treated as a natural breeding-machine, functioning according to rhythms outside of women’s control.

This aspect of primitive accumulation is absent in Marx’s analysis. Except for his remarks in the Communist Manifesto on the use of women within the bourgeois family – as producers of heirs guaranteeing the transmission of family property – Marx never acknowledged that procreation could become a terrain of exploitation and by the same token a terrain of resistance. He never imagined that women could refuse to reproduce, or that such a refusal could become part of class struggle. In the Grundrisse (1973: 100) he argued that capitalist development proceeds irrespective of population numbers because, by virtue of the increasing productivity of labor, the labor that capital exploits constantly diminishes in relation to “constant capital” (that is, the capital invested in machinery and other production assets), with the consequent determination of a “surplus population.” But this dynamic, which Marx defines as the “law of population typical of the capitalist mode of production” (Capital, Vol. I: 689ff.), could only prevail if procreation were a purely biological process, or an activity responding automatically to economic change, and if capital and the state did not need to worry about “women going on strike against child making.” This, in fact, is what Marx assumed. He acknowledged that capitalist development has been accompanied by an increase in population, of which he occasionally discussed the causes. But, like Adam Smith, he saw this increase as a “natural effect” of economic development, and in Capital, Vol. I, he repeatedly contrasted the determination of a “surplus population” with the population’s “natural increase.” Why procreation should be “a fact of nature” rather than a social, historically determined activity, invested by diverse interests and power relations, is a question Marx did not ask. Nor did he imagine that men and women might have different interests with respect to child-making, an activity which he treated as a gender-neutral, undifferentiated process.

In reality, so far are procreation and population changes from being automatic or “natural” that, in all phases of capitalist development, the state has had to resort to regulation and coercion to expand or reduce the work-force. This was especially true at the time of the capitalist take-off, when the muscles and bones of workers were the primary means of production. But even later – down to the present – the state has spared no efforts in its attempt to wrench from women’s hands the control over reproduction, and to determine which children should be born, where, when, or in what numbers. Consequently, women have often been forced to procreate against their will, and have experienced an alienation from their bodies, their “labor,” and even their children, deeper than that experienced by any other workers (Martin 1987: 19-21). No one can describe in fact the anguish and desperation suffered by a woman seeing her body turn against herself, as it must occur in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. This is particularly true to those situations in which out-of-wedlock pregnancies are penalized, and when having a child makes a woman vulnerable to social ostracism or even death.

The Devaluation of Women’s Labor

The criminalization of women’s control over procreation is a phenomenon whose importance cannot be overemphasized, both from the viewpoint or its effects on women and its consequences for the capitalist organization of work. As is well documented, through the Middle Ages women had possessed many means of contraception, mostly consisting of herbs which turned into potions and “pessaries” (suppositories) were used to quicken a woman’s period, provoke an abortion, or create a condition of sterility. In Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception in the West (1997), the American historian John Riddle has given us an extensive catalogue of the substances that were most used and the effects expected of them or most likely to occur.61 The criminalization of conception expropriated women from this knowledge that had been transmitted from generation to generation, giving them some autonomy with respect to child-birth. It appears that, in some cases, this knowledge was not lost but was only driven underground; yet when birth control again made its appearance on the social scene, contraceptive methods were no longer of the type that women could use, but were specifically created for use by men. What demographic consequences followed from this shift is a question that for the moment I will not pursue, though I refer to Riddle’s work for a discussion of this matter. Here I only want to stress that by denying women control over their bodies, the state deprived them of the most fundamental condition for physical and psychological integrity and degraded maternity to the status of forced labor, in addition to confining women to reproductive work in a way unknown in previous societies. Nevertheless, forcing women to procreate against their will or (as a feminist song from the 1970s had it) forcing them to “produce children for the state,”62 only in part defined women’s function in the new sexual division of labor. A complementary aspect was the definition of women as non-workers, a process much studied by feminist historians, which by the end of the 17ᵗʰ century was nearly completed.

By this time women were losing ground even with respect to jobs that had been their prerogatives, such as ale-brewing and midwifery, where their employment was subjected to new restrictions. Proletarian women in particular found it difficult to obtain any job other than those carrying the lowest status: as domestic servants (the occupation of a third of the female work-force), farm-hands, spinners, knitters, embroiderers, hawkers, wet nurses. As Merry Wiesner (among others) tells us, the assumption was gaining ground (in the law, in the tax records, in the ordinances of the guilds) that women should not work outside the home, and shouJd engage in “production” only in order to help their husbands. It was even argued that any work that women did at home was “non-work” and was worthless even when done for the market (Wiesner 1993: 83ff). Thus, if a woman sewed some clothes it was “domestic work” or “housekeeping,” even if the clothes were not for the family, whereas when a man did the same task it was considered “productive.” Such was the devaluation of women’s labor that city governments told the guilds to overlook the production that women (especially widows) did in their homes, because it was not real work, and because the women needed it not to fall on public relief. Wiesner adds that women accepted this fiction and even apologized for asking to work, pleading for it on account of their need to support themselves (ibid.: 84-85). Soon all female work, if done in the home, was defined as “housekeeping,” and even when done outside the home it was paid less than men’s work, and never enough for women to be able to live by it. Marriage was now seen as a woman’s true career, and women’s inability to support themselves was taken so much for granted, that when a single woman tried to settle in a village, she was driven away even if she earned a wage.

(The prostitute and the soldier. Often a camp follower, the prostitute performed the function of a wife for soldiers and other proletarians, washing and cooking for the men she served in addition to providing sexual services.)

(A prostitute inviting a client. The number of prostitutes increased immensely in the aftermath of land privatization and the commercialization of agriculture which expelled many peasant women from the land.)

Combined with land dispossession, this loss of power with regard to wage employment led to the massification of prostitution. As Le Roy Ladurie reports, the growth in the number of prostitutes in France was visible everywhere:

From Avignon to Narbonne to Barcelona “sporting women” (femmes de debauche) stationed themselves at the gates of the cities, in streets of redlight districts ... and on the bridges ... by 1594 the “shameful traffic” was flourishing as never before (Le Roy Ladurie 1974: 112-13).

The situation was similar in England and Spain, where, everyday, in the cities, poor women arriving from the countryside, and even the wives of craftsmen, rounded up the family income with this work. A proclamation issued by the political authorities in Madrid, in 1631, denounced the problem, complaining that many vagabond women were now wandering among the city’s streets, alleys, and taverns, enticing men to sin with them (Vigil 1986: 114-5). But no sooner had prostitution become the main form of subsistence for a large female population than the institutional attitude towards it changed. Whereas in the late Middle Ages it had been officially accepted as a necessary evil, and prostitutes had benefited from the high wage regime, in the 16ᵗʰ century, the situation was reversed. In a climate of intense misogyny, characterized by the advance of the Protestant Reformation and witch-hunting, prostitution was first subjected to new restrictions and then criminalized. Everywhere, between 1530 and 1560, town brothels were closed and prostitutes, especially street-walkers, were subjected to severe penalties: banishment, flogging, and other cruel forms of chastisement. Among them was “the ducking stool” or acabussade – “a piece of grim theatre,” as Nickie Roberts describes it – whereby the victims were tied up, sometimes they were forced into a cage, and then were repeatedly immersed in rivers or ponds, till they almost drowned (Roberts 1992: 115-6). Meanwhile. in 16ᵗʰ-century France, the raping of a prostitute ceased to be a crime.63 In Madrid, as well, it was decided that female vagabonds and prostitutes should not be allowed to stay and sleep in the streets and under the porticos of the town, and if caught should be given a hundred lashes, and then should be banned from the city for six years in addition to having their heads and eyebrows shaved.

What can account for this drastic attack on female workers? And how does the exclusion of women from the sphere of socially recognized work and monetary relations relate to the impositon of forced maternity upon them, and the contemporary massification of the witch-hunt?

Looking at these phenomena from the vantage point of the present, after four centuries of capitalist disciplining of women, the answers may seem to impose themselves. Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied all too often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the waged work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home. We can thus connect the banning of prostitution and the expulsion of women from the organized workplace with the creation of the housewife and the reconstruction of the family as the locus for the production of labor-power. However, from a theoretical and a political viewpoint, the fundamental question is under what conditions such degradation was possible, and what social forces promoted it or were complicitous with it.

The answer here is that an important factor in the devaluation of women’s labor was the campaign that craft workers mounted, starting in the late 15ᵗʰ century, to exclude female workers from their work-shops, presumably to protect themselves from the assaults of the capitalist merchants who were employing women at cheaper rates. The craftsmen’s efforts have left an abundant trail of evidence.64 Whether in Italy, France, or Germany, journeymen petitioned the authorities not to allow women to compete with them, banned them from their ranks, went on strike when the ban was not observed, and even refused to work with men who worked with women. It appears that the craftsmen were also interested in limiting women to domestic work because, given their economic difficulties, “the prudent household management on the part of a wife” was becoming for them an indispensable condition for avoiding bankruptcy and for keeping an independent shop. Sigrid Brauner (the author of the above citation) speaks of the importance accorded by the German artisans to this social rule (Brauner 1995: 96-97). Women tried to resist this onslaught, but – faced with the intimidating tactics male workers used against them – failed. Those who dared to work out of the home, in a public space and for the market, were portrayed as sexually aggressive shrews or even as “whores” and “witches” (Howell 1986: 182-83).65 Indeed, there is evidence that the wave of misogyny that by the late 15ᵗʰ century was mounting in the European cities – reflected in the male obsession the “battle for the breeches” and with the character of the disobedient wife, pictured in the popular literature in the act of beating her husband or riding on his back, emanated also from this (self-defeating) attempt to drive women from the workplace and from the market.

(A prostitute being subjected to the torture of the accabussade. “She will be submerged in the river several times and then imprisoned for life.”)

(Like the “battle for the breeches,” the image of the domineering wife challenging the sexual hierarchy and beating her husband was one of the favorite targets of 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ-century social literature.)

On the other hand, it is clear that this attempt would not have succeeded if the authorities had not cooperated with it. But they obviously saw that it was in their interest to do so. For, in addition to pacifying the rebellious journeymen, the displacement of women from the crafts provided the necessary basis for their fixation in reproductive labor and their utilization as low-waged workers in cottage industry.

Women: The New Commons and the Substitute for the Lost Land

It was from this alliance between the crafts and the urban authorities, along with the continuing privatization of land, that a new sexual division of labor or, better, a new “sexual contract,” in Carol Pateman’s words (1988), was forged, defining women in terms – mothers, wives, daughters, widows – that hid their status as workers, while giving men free access to women’s bodies, their labor, and the bodies and labor of their children.

According to this new social-sexual contract, proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will. Echoes of this “primitive appropriation” can be heard in the concept of the “common woman” (Karras 1989) which in the 16ᵗʰ century qualified those who prostituted themselves. But in the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.

This was for women a historic defeat. With their expulsion from the crafts and the devaluation of reproductive labor poverty became feminized, and to enforce men’s “primary appropriation” of women’s labor, a new patriarchal order was constructed, reducing women to a double dependence: on employers and on men. The fact that unequal power relations between women and men existed even prior to the advent of capitalism, as did a discriminating sexual division of labor, does not detract from this assessment. For in pre-capitalist Europe women’s subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations.


56. While Hackett Fischer connects the 17ᵗʰ century decline of population in Europe to the social effects of the Price Revolution (pp. 91-92), Peter Kriedte presents a more complex picture, arguing that demographic decline was a combination of both Malthusian and socio-economic factors. The decline was, in his view, a response to both the population increase of the early 16ᵗʰ century, on one side, and on the other to the landlords’ appropriation of the larger portion of the agricultural income (p. 63).

An interesting observation which supports my arguments concerning the connection between demographic decline and pro-natalist state policies is offered by Robert S. Duplessis (1997) who writes that the recovery after the population crisis of the 17ᵗʰ century was far swifter than that after the Black Death. It took a century for the population to start growing again after the epidemic of 1348, while in the 17ᵗʰ century the growth process was reactivated within less than half a century (p. 143). The estimates would indicate the presence in 17ᵗʰ-century Europe of a far higher natality rate, possibly to be attributed to the fierce attack on any form of contraception.

57. “Bio-power” is the concept Foucault used in his History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978) to describe the shift from an authoritarian form of government to one more decentralized, centered on the “fostering of the power of life” in 19ᵗʰ-century Europe. “Bio-power” expresses the growing concern, at the state level, for the sanitary, sexuaI, and penal control of individual bodies, as well as population growth and population movements and their insertion into the economic realm. According to this paradigm, the rise of bio-power went hand in hand with the rise of liberalism and marked the end of the juridical and monarchic state.

58. I make this distinction with the Canadian sociologist Bruce Curtis’ discussion of the Foucauldian concept of “population” and “bio-power” in mind. Curtis contrasts the concept of “populousness,” which was current in the 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ centuries, with the notion of “population” that became the basis of the modern science of demography in the 19ᵗʰ century. He points out that “populousness” was an organic and hierarchical concept. When the mercantilists used it they were concerned with the part of the social body that creates wealth, i.e., actual or potential laborers. The later concept of “population” is an atomistic one. “Population consists of so many undifferentiated atoms distributed through abstract space and time” – Curtis writes – “with its own laws and structures.” I argue, however, that there is a continuity between these two notions, as in both the mercantilist and liberal capitalist period, the notion of population has been functional to the reproduction of labor-power.

59. The heyday of Mercantilism was in the second half of the 17ᵗʰ century, its dominance in economic life being associated with the names of William Petty (1623-1687) and Jean Baptiste Colbert, the finance minister of Louis XIV. However, the late 17ᵗʰ-century mercantilists only systematized or applied theories that had been developing since the 16ᵗʰ century. Jean Bodin in France and Giovanni Botero in Italy are considered proto-mercantilist economists. One of the first systematic formulations of mercantilist economic theory is found in Thomas Mun’s England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade (1622).

60. For a discussion of the new legislation against infanticide see (among others) John Riddle (1997), 163-166; Merry Wiesner (1993), 52-53; and Mendelson and Crawford (1998), who write that “{t}he crime of infanticide was one that single women were more likely to commit than any other group in society. A study of infanticide in the early seventeenth century showed that of sixty mothers, fifty three were single, six were widows” (p. 149). Statistics also show that infanticide was punished even more frequently than witchcraft. Margaret King writes that Nuremberg “executed fourteen women for that crime between 1578 and 1615, but only one witch. The Parliament of Rouen from 1580s to 1606 prosecuted about as many cases of infanticide as witchcraft, but punished infanticide more severely. Calvinist Geneva shows a much higher rate of execution for infanticide than witchcraft; from 1590 to 1630, nine women of eleven charged were executed for infanticide, compared to only one of thirty suspects for witchcraft (p. 10). These estimates are confirmed by Merry Wiesner, who writes that “in Geneva, for example, 25 women out of 31 charged with infanticide during the period 1595-1712 were executed, as compared with 19 out of 122 charged with witchcraft (1993: 52). Women were executed for infanticide in Europe as late as the 18ᵗʰ century.

61. An interesting article on this topic is Robert Fletcher’s “The Witches Pharmakopeia” (1896).

62. The reference is to an Italian feminist song from 1971 titled “Aborto di Stato” (State Abortion).

63. Margaret L. King, Women of the Renaissance (1991), 78. For the closing of brothels in Germany see Merry Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany (1986), 194-209.

64. An extensive catalogue of the places and years in which women were expelled from the crafts is found in David Herlihy, Women, Family and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays. Providence: Berghahan, 1978-1991. See also Merry Wiesner (1986), 174-185.

65. Martha Howell (1986), Chapter 8, 174-183. Howell writes:

“Comedies and satires of the period, for example, often portrayed market women and trades women as shrews, with characterizations that not only ridiculed or scolded them for taking on roles in market production but frequently even charged them with sexual aggression” (p.182).

I picked up this book and thought i'd have a go at reviewing it: nice high quality glossy paper, cover has a matt finish that is very nice to touch, excellent use of pictures (lacking from most books, why?) pleasing choice of font, font size is a little small though. Great production values on this book